WASHINGTON — Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people, the president of the prominent Jesuit university in Washington announced Thursday.
University President John DeGioia made the announcement as he released the recommendations of a school committee that was created last year to study Georgetown’s ties to slavery. The university also plans to establish an institute for the study of slavery, and to create a public memorial honoring slaves from whom Georgetown benefited.
“We must acknowledge that Georgetown University participated in the institution of slavery,” DeGioia said at a campus gathering on Thursday. “There were slaves here on this hilltop until emancipation in 1862.”
In 1838, two priests who served as president of the university orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000, or roughly $3.3 million in today’s dollars, to pay off debts at the school. The slaves were sent from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to Louisiana, “where they labored under dreadful conditions,” and families were broken up, according to a report issued by the school committee.
The transaction was one of the most thoroughly documented large sales of enslaved people in history, and the names of many of the people sold are included in bills of sale, a transport manifest and other documents. Genealogical research conducted by Georgetown and other organizations, including The New York Times, has identified many living descendants of the slaves.
“We want a partnership. We are not interested in conflict, we are not talking reparations — we are talking about how this university can be an asset to the world in healing some pain, in healing racism that is just destroying our society,” said Joseph Stewart, one of the descendants, at the university assembly.
The university will reach out to those descendants and recruit them to the university, and they will have the same advantage in admissions that’s given to people whose parents or grandparents attended Georgetown, DeGioia said. Universities around the United States have taken various attempts to atone for their participation in slavery, but several historians said the establishment of an admissions preference is unprecedented.
“We provide care and respect for the members of the Georgetown community: faculty, staff, alumni, those with an enduring relationship with Georgetown. We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants,” DeGioia said.
Historians have uncovered ties to slavery at many of America’s early colleges. Princeton University’s first eight presidents owned slaves. Harvard University’s law school was created with money donated by a slave owner. Dozens of slaved were used to build the University of Virginia’s campus and to operate its hotels and kitchens.
“The history of the American college is in fact a chapter in the history of American slavery,” said Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of a 2013 book on academia’s link to slavery. “Every college that was established before the American Revolution has direct ties to slavery.”
On many campuses, those darker histories remained mostly hidden for decades. But in recent years, often amid pressure from students, some colleges have sought to confront their pasts.
In 2006, for example, Brown University published a report chronicling its ties to the slave trade and in 2014 installed a memorial on campus to recognize it. Harvard posted a plaque on campus this year honoring slaves who worked on campus in the 1700s. Last year, the University of Virginia named a new dorm building after a slave couple who worked on campus.
Georgetown’s new admissions advantage goes beyond what most colleges have done to atone for their pasts, Wilder said. But replicating it would be impossible at most other schools, he said, because few records were kept at the time that could be used to trace descendants.
Officials at the University of Virginia and Brown University said they have had little success tracking descendants of slaves connected to their campuses.
The Georgetown committee also called on the school to offer a formal apology for its relationship with slavery. DeGioia said that will happen at a “mass of reconciliation” with the Archdiocese of Washington.
The university had already committed to renaming two buildings that had been named for the priests who orchestrated the sale. On Thursday, DiGioia announced that those buildings will be named after Isaac, the enslaved man whose name is the first mentioned in documents of the sale, and Anne Marie Becraft, a free African-American woman who founded a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood in 1827.
Georgetown also will create a memorial to the slaves whose sale benefited the university, and it will establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies to support continued research into the history of slavery and engagement with descendants.
Binkley reported from Boston.
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