At Georgetown, Opening a Door to History, Truth and Engagement

At Georgetown, Opening a Door to History, Truth and Engagement

[Essay] The report of an assembled group of faculty, students and administrators at the university is helping to foster the needed discussion on the longterm ramifications of its part in the slave trade

by Marcia Chatelain, September 6, 2016

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At Georgetown, Opening a Door to History, Truth and Engagement

A man walks past Remembrance Hall, left, formerly named McSherry Hall, after a former president who traded slaves, on the Georgetown University campus. AP / Jacquelyn Martin

During the peak days of the heat and humidity of August in Washington, D.C, my colleagues and I don our academic regalia to mark the start of another school year at Georgetown University. Weighted in layers of fabric and wearing ill-fitting velvet caps, we march before our newest class of students—most of them embarking on their first year of college.

In the sea of faces before us, we see young people searching to connect to a school founded so long ago in 1789. When I spot the Black students and their families in the audience, often our eyes lock. I offer a quick smile and a wave. We look at each other and we recognize the special quality of the occasion and we pay tribute to the generations before us that could not imagine either of us sharing such a moment.

By now, you have probably read the stories about how Jesuit priests decided to sell at least 272 slaves in 1838 to reconcile some of the university’s debts. You may have read the New York Times feature on the descendants of the sale and their discovery of their roots at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools. And, your Facebook wall and your Twitter timeline may be the place where you and friends are debating the University’s announcement that descendants of this sale will be considered legacy applicants, like the child of an alum or faculty member. I hope you spend some time reading the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation report, which I had the honor of contributing to and lending my perspectives and insights about the use of this history for our university’s present and future.

Georgetown is my employer. Over the past five years, Georgetown has also become my second home. Georgetown’s mission resonates with my faith. And its history—particularly its enmeshment with the institution of slavery—chastens my feelings of loyalty and allegiance. To be Black in America is to always feel distant and apart from the very places built and endowed by Black bodies. Anthems, pledges, ceremonies, and traditions are often painful reminders of the unacknowledged work, the losses unaccounted, and the deaths “at hands of persons unknown.”

Within the confines of 104 pages, the Working Group tells a story about the United States—a nation that has built its greatest myths on the idea of freedom—and the Jesuits, a Catholic order that has suffered persecution around the world, but nonetheless enriched itself through slavery. Central to Georgetown’s creation as a Jesuit college in the United States, were the women, men, and children who toiled on plantations in southern Maryland, traveled onto our campus with their masters, were leased to maintain the University’s buildings and grounds, and then sold to relieve Georgetown of its financial pressures.

Although our Working Group was a collaboration fueled by mutual respect for each other and a desire to honor the scores of Black people who labored for our institution, each of us has something we point to, our personal gems within a collection of ideas.

As a Black Catholic woman who discovered her love of history through an undergraduate study of Sister Thea Bowman, I was thrilled that we decided to rename one of our residence halls after Sister Maria Becraft, a devout Catholic committed to the education of Black girls in the nation’s capital. Sister Becraft, a free woman of color, founded her school in the 1820s, decades before Emancipation and years before the sale of slaves at Georgetown. In the shadow of the university, she resisted anti-Catholic and anti-Black intimidation in order to respond to her calling.

Similarly, having attended Brown University during the presidency of Ruth J. Simmons (the first Black woman to head an Ivy League school), who was one of the first college leaders to convene a study of slavery on her campus, I could not help but feel that my joining this group was more than just another administrative task. Both Becraft and Simmons were ahead of their times.

When I began my tenure on the Working Group, I didn’t expect surprises. None of these details, no element of this rich narrative is new to me. What part of our country is not a reflection of slavery’s hold, of Jim Crow’s powerful grasp, or racism’s incredible reach?

Yet, nearly one year later from our first Working Group meeting, I can say that although my awareness of this history has not changed, I have felt something new and unexpected in the reactions to engaging a community like Georgetown on the history of slavery. Yes, there were resistors and trolls and naysayers, but there were even more curious, thoughtful, and generous souls drawn to think not only about the past, but also our painful present. Our students wanted to ‘get woke’ about slavery.

They spoke up in class about what needed to be done. They sat-in our President’s office and sped up our process of renaming two residence halls once named for Georgetown’s leaders who orchestrated the slave sale. They stood on their principles, and they challenged us to make sure our work was in service to their vision of what a University should be in the 21st century.

At graduation in May, as the faculty and staff anticipate of our summer break, I will put my regalia back on and participate in a time-honored tradition of bidding farewell to our seniors. I will look out in the audience again, and the Black students, the Black parents, as well as the Black staff members will return smiles, nods, and a few will offer hugs.

We will look at each other, and my hope is that our celebration will be a bit sweeter and our recognition of the past a little clearer as a result of this process. I don’t know what is next for Georgetown, or the nation, or the generation of students I have the pleasure of teaching.

I do hope that what Georgetown students—as well as the nation—learn is that our greatest liberation will only come when we tell the most painful, detailed, and fullest of truths.


Marcia Chatelain is Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of the book South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration.

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