Students at Georgetown University voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of creating a reparations fund for the descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans sold by the school in 1838 to pay off its debts. The fund would be one of the first of its kind at a prominent U.S. institution.
The non-binding referendum was passed with two-thirds of the vote and now awaits action by the university’s board of directors, which hasn’t indicated whether it will support the measure. In response to a request for comment, Georgetown administrators directed ThinkProgress to a statement released by Vice President for Student Affairs Todd A. Olson on Thursday, in which he said, “The University has made a commitment to further our efforts in dialogue and partnership with the Descendant community.”
“I’m definitely happy to see the response that we have, around 50 percent,” Shepard Thomas, Georgetown student and descendant of the 272 enslaved people, told The Hoya. “I would just be happy to see this dialogue continue in the same direction.”
Under the proposal, a per semester fee of $27.20 would be added to undergraduate students’ tuition, a symbolic amount reflecting the number of slaves that were sold by the school. The funds would go toward supporting education and health projects in areas where some of the descendants live, such as Louisiana and Maryland. It is estimated that the fee would raise about $380,000 annually.
“Personally, my ‘yes’ vote was a way for me to stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities and to memorialize the legacy of the 272 slaves sold,” said Georgetown University Student Body Vice President Aleida Olvera. “I know that my $27.20 has the power to impact over 4,000 known, living descendants, and I believe that I am indebted to the 272 slaves that were sold to save Georgetown.”
If approved, the fund would mark the second time Georgetown has taken action to atone for its sale of slaves nearly two centuries ago. In 2016, the university announced that descendants of the people it sold would receive preferential status during the admissions process. As ThinkProgress previously reported, administrators also publicly apologized for the university’s role in the slave trade, established a memorial in honor of the slaves who built the school, and renamed one of the buildings, originally dedicated to a slave master, after a slave who was sold by the school. Georgetown also opened a designated institute to study slavery.
Those changes came almost one year after hundreds of students protested and held a campus sit-in against racism at the school. Students said the hostile environment was linked to the school’s historic ties to slavery.
“The selling of these men, women, and children have allowed me to benefit from Georgetown’s brand,” Olvera told ThinkProgress. “The student’s action at Georgetown is the first step to setting a precedent for reparative justice across the nation.”
Georgetown is one of only a few U.S. institutions to take steps to confront their racist legacies. Schools like Brown University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, have done research to examine their respective connections with the slave trade. In 2006, Brown found that approximately 30 of the school’s original administrators, including the Brown family itself, owned or captained slave ships involved in the trade. Indeed, a good portion of the funds used to create the university are traceable to the slave trade. In 2014, the school erected a sculpture to memorialize those who were enslaved.
In 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a report examining racism on campus, noting that numerous campus spaces were named after alumni who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In response, the university chancellor said the school would consider changing the names and would create a history exhibit to honor of those who combated racism on campus.
Similarly, Rutgers University found in 2016 that its first president owned slaves, including prominent abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her parents. At the University of North Carolina, protests led the administration in 2016 to rename the school’s Saunders Hall, originally named after a Ku Klux Klan leader. More recent protests at UNC led the school’s chancellor to resign, after ordering workers to remove the foundation for Silent Sam, a Confederate statue that students toppled in 2018.