WASHINGTON, DC — The devastating impact of the sin of slavery cannot be undone with a simple apology and monetary restitution, Georgetown University officials acknowledge.
Work began nearly seven years ago to begin repairing the school’s history of owning and selling slaves.
“Sometimes people will (ask) when are we going to finish the reconciliation initiatives? (The answer is) it’s ongoing. It’s a permanent part of our process,” said Joseph A. Ferrara, vice president and chief of staff to the president of Georgetown University, one of the most recognized Catholic institutions in the United States.
It is a shameful legacy that the Jesuit-run university will carry for the foreseeable future and there is no magic bullet to right the wrong, but Ferrara said the university leadership is committed to pursue reparations to descendants of slaves formerly owned by the Jesuits and to continue programs designed to counter systemic racism.
The efforts of Georgetown and the Jesuits to atone for what they call sin have been widely applauded as an example of how to begin the process of racial healing in a country still struggling to address racism.
However, these efforts are not without criticism from those who believe reparations send the wrong message and from some descendants of Georgetown slaves who argue that the restitution committed falls short of the damages inflicted.
The Jesuits opened Georgetown for tuition in 1792, using profits from their slave plantations in Maryland to fund what is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, said Adam Rothman, associate professor of history at university and author of “Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South.”
“Georgetown’s history is a microcosm of the entire history of American slavery,” Rothman told Catholic News Service in a March interview. “The school was founded by a slave-holding Catholic elite. This group really marked the school in its own image.
Georgetown catered to this social class, educated boys and young men of this class and indoctrinated them with the moral judgments of this class, Rothman said, noting that Catholic nobility and Jesuits found morality in enslaving others. humans.
Documents and research reveal that not only did profits from slave plantations subsidize Georgetown, but slaves also worked on campus, students brought their own personal slaves to campus, and students and faculty defended the institution of slavery in the years before. civil war and fought abolition efforts, he said.
“Georgetown — as the flagship educational institution of the Jesuits in Catholic America in the early 19th century — was truly a pillar of the pro-slavery moral order,” Rothman said.
With mounting debt in the late 1830s, Georgetown was on the verge of financial ruin.
So in 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 enslaved men, women, and children to two plantations in Louisiana and used part of the proceeds from that sale to save the college.
Jesuits and Georgetown officials continued policies of racial segregation long after slavery was outlawed in the United States and well into the 20th century.
By the end of the 20th century, however, the faculty began researching and teaching about Georgetown’s role in slavery, Rothman said.
Students began calling on the university to address its racist past and in 2014 — as the country began to see protests for racial justice — Georgetown officials knew it was time to act, Ferrara told CNS in an interview in March.
“It all flows under a construct that has guided our work,” he said, “that I would kind of put into three words, all of which start with an a. Recognition, apology and action.
In 2015, Georgetown University President John DeGioia established the “Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation Task Force”.
The task force’s efforts led to a formal Jesuit apology and the creation of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, announced in 2021 as a partnership formed by the Jesuits and the Descendants Association GU272.
The Jesuit order has pledged to raise $100 million for the work of the foundation, which will support educational opportunities and scholarships from early childhood education through higher education for descendants of 272 men, women and children reduced to slavery.
The foundation will also support community, local, and national programs that advance racial healing and transformation across the United States.
The university is committed to creating a smaller reconciliation fund to support community groups that benefit descendants, Ferrara said.
Georgetown University has also established a new Racial Justice Institute in 2021, which school officials say will serve as a hub where current and future scholars, activists and thought leaders can work in the academic, political and advocacy spaces to fight the remnants of slavery.
Robin Lenhardt, who is a professor at Georgetown Law and one of the founding faculties of this new initiative, said the Racial Justice Institute will focus on research and societal solutions to racial inequalities in economic stability, housing, health , police, education and a host of other fields.
All of these efforts come after dozens of meetings — many of them painful, multi-year highs — “between the descendants of the oppressed” and Georgetown and Jesuit leaders to begin the healing process, Ferrara said.
“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future,” he said. “That’s what we want to try to do.”
Georgetown’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, and that’s good news for Father Stephen Thorne, a black priest who serves as chairman of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Commission for Racial Healing.
“Repairs are so much more than writing someone a check,” Thorne told CNS in an interview in February. “It’s really about acknowledging what happened and doing the work, the hard work, calling out and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sister Marcia Hall, a black nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, was inspired by Georgetown’s work and hopes other Catholic organizations will take a similar path toward racial reconciliation.
Joseph M. Stewart, acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, stressed that addressing the history of slavery in the United States and its continuing implications must focus on the future rather than the continuation of the deconstruction of the past.
Stewart – who is a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, whose name appeared at the top of the bill of sale for the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Jesuits in 1838 – made the comments during a program in line of 2021 organized by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life was titled “Owning Slavery, Seeking Justice, Seeking Reconciliation.”
“We are not going to change and lessen the impact of slavery until we start looking after the hearts of men instead of the intellectual and legal approach,” he said, while acknowledging also Georgetown for its work with the descendants of the 272. slaves and its ongoing research.