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.