Georgetown University has announced that it will give admissions preference to the descendants of 272 slaves that it sold in an attempt at reconciliation for profiting from human trafficking in the 19th century.
The school’s president John DeGioia made the announcement Thursday as Georgetown released a report that called on its leaders to offer a formal apology for its participation in the slave trade.
The 104-page report, which comes from Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation makes the university’s history with people held in bondage publicly accessible through multimedia including an archive, a historical timeline and campus discussion over the issue of enslavement.
“There is a moral, as well as a practical, imperative that defines this moment—that shapes the responsibility we all share: how do we address now, in this moment, the enduring and persistent legacy of slavery,” DeGioia wrote in his announcement. “I believe the most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time.”
The effort stems from the 1838 sale of slaves by two Jesuit priests, Fr. Thomas Mulledy, president of the then-Georgetown College and Fr. William McSherry, superior of Maryland Province, for $115,000 (about $3.3 million today) in order to pay off some of the school’s debts. The slaves were sent from plantations in Maryland to Louisiana. The reports says it was not the first or the last sale of slaves the school took part in, but it was the largest. It also notes that it was one of the largest mass sales of slaves in American history, but little is known about what happened to those slaves as they went through a battery of further sales over the course of nearly the next two decades.
But 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 by 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 is given to people whose parents or grandparents attended Georgetown, DeGioia said. While universities around the United States have taken various attempts to atone for their participation in slavery, the establishment of an admissions preference appears to be unprecedented.
However other schools have acknowledged their own ties to the slave trade. According to the Washington Post, Brown University released a report in 2006 documenting its involvement in the institution and the University of Virginia’s board voted in 2007 to apologize for using slaves. Georgetown began its panel on the subject last year with the intention of outreach to the descendants of the slaves it profited from.
“We will give descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process,”DeGioia wrote in his letter to the university community.
In addition to the apology, the report outlined several other steps. 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.
Karen Harper-Royal, an organizer of Georgetown descendants told the Times she was appreciative of the initiative put forth, but it was not what they had hoped for. She added that she felt slighted that her group was not invited to DeGioia’s announcement.
“It has to go much farther,” she said. “They’re calling us family. Well, I’m from New Orleans and when we have a gathering, family’s invited.”
With AP. A version of this story appeared on JETMag.com.