Georgetown University owes the descendants of the enslaved Africans who built and sustained its institution all of its $1.5 billion endowment—and then some.
On Sept. 1 the university formally announced plans to grapple with its history of being founded by slave owners and financed by slave labor, including the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838, a sale that “saved” the university from financial ruin.
In a halfhearted attempt at contrition, Georgetown is creating an Institute on the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, commissioning a memorial to honor the 272 people sold and renaming two of the buildings currently named after the presidents who facilitated their sale. The university also said that it would locate the descendants of those enslaved and sold persons and offer them “preferential treatment” in admissions. Some news outlets are heralding the move as a bold step toward how historic institutions can acknowledge their slavery-enmeshed, anti-black foundations, but the gesture seems, quite frankly, like bulls—t.
In a statement to the university, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia wrote that the preferential admission process would “give descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.” This solution appears to offer the descendants of people enslaved by Georgetown’s stewards little more than a few extra points to boost their application.
Despite the ecstatic response to this insulting plan of action, this is not a reparations package—not even close.
The amount for which the 272 slaves were sold by late Georgetown University President Thomas Mulledy—$115,000—would equate to roughly $3.3 million in U.S. dollars today. Using that purchase as a baseline, at least $50 billion would be owed to the descendants of the 12,000 to 15,000 enslaved people owned by the university’s Jesuit priests. If Georgetown is authentically interested in reconciliation and atonement for its history, it should appropriate its $1.5 billion endowment to offer guaranteed admission (or a path to admission) regardless of income or felony status, and full scholarships—including housing, computers and books, and monthly stipends—in perpetuity to the descendants of enslaved people whose labor and bodies built the university.
Moreover, as a person whose ancestors were enslaved in Maryland and is very likely a descendant of someone who worked on, interacted with or came through plantations owned by Georgetown’s Jesuit priests, I have questions:
- How does Georgetown plan to atone for the 12,000 to 15,000 enslaved Africans on their plantations before the 1838 sale?
- What about those who were enslaved on neighboring plantations and hired out by Jesuit priests?
- How do you account for those who were raped and bore children who were sold off?
- Can those “gifted” to others within or outside the church be considered for “preferential treatment”?
- How would you identify all of those impacted by this slave sale when slave records and bills of sale are notoriously difficult to track—and how would they lay claim to their inheritance?
Furthermore, any person bearing African ancestry in this country is affected by the racial terrorism born out of the system of slavery that Georgetown perpetuated; all of us deserve acknowledgment and atonement, not just the descendants of 272.
There is no way that Georgetown or any institution with its roots in slavery can execute a program like this with integrity and accuracy. At present, no reliable way exists to track the descendants of the people enslaved at these plantations. This is not an avenue to abdicate responsibility or complicity, and this doesn’t mean don’t try—it means try harder.
Georgetown isn’t the only institution with blood on its hands. The whole damn nation is guilty as hell.
As Rewire editor Imani Gandy notes, “The United States is rooted in anti-blackness. Anti-blackness was built into the U.S. Constitution by this country’s Founding Fathers. Nearly every major corporation [and institution] that exists today was either founded by racists, employed racists, built their business on anti-Blackness and slavery, or all of the above.”
The trans-Atlantic slave trade—including the social, economic and political plunder and apartheid of black people—facilitated the United States’ economic ascension and cemented its place as a global superpower, and the end of formal enslavement did not end our oppression.
White supremacists innovated new ways to ensure that the old racial order remained. Paddy rollers became police officers. Universities kept the funds earned as a result of their ties to slave labor and then shuttered their doors to black people. With few exceptions, white people joined their brethren (and sistren) to serve as sergeants at arms for white supremacy.
This history not only haunts the legacy of Georgetown but has wholly informed how anti-black racism shows up today.
Institutions whose roots directly stem from slave labor are obligated to honor, compensate and apologize to the descendants of enslaved people. This includes the U.S. government, universities, churches and businesses.
Instead of this program, I want Georgetown to run us our money.
Samantha Master is a black-queer-feminist activist, educator and member of the Black Youth Project 100. Follow her on Twitter.