Centuries after Georgetown University sold slaves to keep its doors open, the elite school is taking major steps to right its wrongs. Descendants of the people it sold in 1838 will now receive preferential status during the admissions process — possibly the first concession of its kind.
Georgetown administrators also announced on Wednesday that the school will erect a memorial to honor the slaves who built the school and publicly apologize for its involvement in the slave trade. One of the buildings that was formerly dedicated to a slave master will be renamed after a slave, and a second will be renamed after a prominent black educator. And the school will open a designated institute for people to study slavery.
The changes come nearly one year after hundreds of students rallied on campus and staged a sit-in outside President John J. DeGioia’s office, calling on the school’s leader to address racism on campus. The hostile environment, they argued, was a direct product of Georgetown’s historic ties to slavery.
Not only did slaves build the Jesuit school, but the priests who ran it also sold 272 of them — including children — to Maryland and Louisiana plantations, in order to pay off the institution’s debts.
These student activists already successfully fought for slave owners’ names to be removed from campus. But now, the school is going even further.
Before student activism drew national attention to the school last November, DeGioia created the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to devise meaningful ways for Georgetown to atone for its past sins. The working group — a handpicked group of students, faculty, and alumni — was integral in coming up with the action plan announced on Wednesday.
DeGioia is expected to make an official announcement on Thursday, months after meeting with descendants of those sold by the institution.
“We know we’ve got work to do, and we’re going to take those steps to do so,” Mr. DeGioia told the Times. “It needs to be a part of our living history.”
It is unclear what preferential status will look like, but Georgetown’s latest commitment is a singular one. Historian Craig Steven Wilder told the Times that he was unable to name another university that’s gone so far as giving favorable treatment to the relatives of former slaves.
While the recent news specifically pertains to Georgetown, student protests of racist campus environments have brought about significant changes across the country.
After football players staged a strike last November, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, stepped down. Claremont McKenna’s dean of students was ousted soon after. And in January, Ithaca College’s president called it quits.
Still, as colleges and universities are forced to confront their racist legacies, not all of them been as receptive to change. While Yale University agreed to stop calling the heads of its colleges “masters,” it stopped short of renaming Calhoun College, which honors a pro-slavery politician from the 19th Century. Princeton University opted not to take Woodrow Wilson’s name off of its School of Public and International Affairs, and Boston College threatened student protesters with suspension.