Georgetown University and the legacy of slavery

I’m pretty underwhelmed by Georgetown University’s offer to give “preference in admissions” to the descendants of the enslaved people whose sale (and breakup of their families) financed the university in its earliest days.  For those of you who missed the story this week:

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.

.       .       .       .       .

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, [University President John] 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.

NPR had some good coverage of this story too this week.

It’s nice of Georgetown to offer legacy status to the descendants of people they sold, but let’s rewind:  what does it take for student to apply for admission to Georgetown and possibly to take advantage of this benefit?  First, she or he will need 1) a high school diploma, 2) with a strong academic record, and 3) an awareness of family genealogy.  Even then, admission is not guaranteed, it’s merely “preferred.”

What about setting up some summer and year-round high school boot camps for potential first-generation college students in Washington, D.C. to help students get college-ready?  What about offering descendants and/or boot camp kids scholarships to attend Georgetown?  What about putting some skin in the game, to the tune of $3.3 million plus 182 years of interest?  For starters.

That said, it’s not as though Georgetown were the only university powered by slavery and/or the direct sale of enslaved people:

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.

Catholic religious orders were pretty great about the record-keeping!  Having spent portions of the past 9 years in the Ursuline archives in Quebec City, I can attest to that.

Georgetown is the only one of the schools listed in that story that retains its sectarian orientation.  (Harvard and Brown were founded as a seminaries for puritan and baptist ministers, respectively, but Georgetown was and remains a proud Jesuit institution.)  Georgetown should be a much stronger moral leader on reparations.

14 thoughts on “Georgetown University and the legacy of slavery

  1. Agreed, with an addendum if this policy sticks: Georgetown should promise that in approximately 2022 it will announce what if anything resulted from this admission preference. I don’t mean naming students admitted as members of the enslaved-descendant category, but the number of such persons and whether they graduated. If Georgetown had to make such an announcement, I bet it would now announce another measure or two aimed at what it did two centuries ago.

    Come to think of it, why not pressure universities to disclose how many admitted students received extra credit in admission under the alumni ‘legacy’ category?


    • Great point on demanding metrics. I’ve been involved in an entirely anodyne exercise recently with my department involving increasing our numbers of majors. And we have to present our ideas with “goal, plan, & metrics” for evaluating our successes (or lack thereof.)

      It seems pretty normal to expect some kind of accountability. (Another reason that programs for college-readiness would be a useful thing for the immediate community & thereby earn some goodwill immediately.)


  2. We’re a public school and we already have these things for all minority students– programs for high school students, programs for undergrads at hbcus, second and third looks at underrepresented minority applications, diversity scholarships. It’s a shame that GMU limits the second look to only the subset of minorities they’ve directly affected.


  3. My sense (mostly from reading the Washington Post) is that Georgetown already does *some* outreach to students from underrepresented groups/backgrounds, including locally (see and But I’m sure they could do more, especially in preparing potential students earlier in their educational careers (and it sounds like they have some existing members of their community who could advise on how best to go about that; ideally this is the sort of program where success could breed further success, and insight. That’s also another argument for listening to, and partnering with, the descendants themselves, many of whom seem to have made quite successful lives despite the barriers they faced. They’re probably going to have the best ideas for how to dismantle, or at least lower, those barriers, and how Georgeown can play a role).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m generally dubious about the ‘oh, we don’t have records’ argument. Really? How many of us have been told that about our work on marginalized people? How about universities pay a historian to spend a year looking for any records before they declare evidence unfindable?


    • Great point, from a scholar told repeatedly that there were no sources to help answer her questions. You of all people would know! “They” (the universities) may not have the records in their own archives, but the family papers of the Brown family, etc. may shed light on this question.

      I’m sure it was in part the specificity of the detailed records kept of the Jesuit sale of enslaved people–showing their ages (many children) and the breakup of many families–that spurred G’town to make a specific reparations offer to their descendants. Who’s to say what else may be out there for universities to reckon with if we only look for it?


      • Totally. Half of the idea (and sometimes maybe as much as three-quarters of the fun) of doing history is the hope and expectation of finding whole categories of sources that no one would expect to think of from a cold start. How ’bout the U. do something *really* dramatic, like declaring a one-semester stand-down for the entire History Department, and use it to brainstorm (which historians are really good at when turned loose) and crash the boards in search of the evidence trails? Then, the task of mining the veins and smelting the ore could be turned over to the hooda-thunkit division. If it leads to nothing…. well, nothing leads to nothing in the inquiry space.


    • Thanks for sharing the link, Dustin–your article is much more thorough & better argued than mine for it, but yes: we’re on the same page, exactly.


    • This is going to happen, regardless of the institution’s support for the education of descendants of the people whose lives profited the early institution. They were sold for seed money for the uni, so I think it should dip into its endowment and its alumni base to pay for the scholarships.


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