Georgetown University is the latest college in the national spotlight for its historic link to slavery. The university, during an existential financial crisis in 1838, earned millions from selling 272 of its slaves.
Many at Georgetown are now asking whether it’s time for the Catholic university to make amends to the slaves’ descendants, according to The New York Times.
It’s heartbreaking. The records indicate that the youngest slave sold to save Georgetown was just 2 months old. The infant and its mother were among the group of grandparents, pregnant women, toddlers, and fathers-to-be. They were bound and forced onto a ship sailing from their plantation home in Maryland to work in Louisiana.
To modern eyes, the contradiction is glaring: How could the Catholic priests who led the university hold scores of human beings in cruel bondage and then sell them into harsher circumstances?
Historians told the Times that Georgetown depended on profits from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to finance the college. Some of the slaves were donated by rich parishioners. The priests required their slaves to attend Mass, but life was not easy. They were whipped and sold like any other slaves.
The mass sale of 272 men, women, and children was particularly troubling—even at that time. Two Georgetown Jesuit presidents negotiated the transaction that earned the college $3.3 million in today’s dollars. They used about $500,000 to settle Georgetown’s debts, the Times reports.
This news comes against the backdrop of protests and racial tension at colleges with links to slavery. Recently, Harvard University acknowledged its slave past and decided to replace its law school’s shield because it incorporated the crest of the slave-owning family that helped to finance the law school.
Following student protests, Georgetown agreed to remove the names of two former presidents – the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry – from campus buildings. But many say that’s not enough.
“This is not a disembodied group of people, who are nameless and faceless. These are real people with real names and real descendants,” alumnus Richard J. Cellini told the New York Times.
Cellini, who is White, is among those spearheading an effort to piece together what happened to the 272 slaves and to locate their descendants. He organized a nonprofit, the Georgetown Memory Project, and hired a team of genealogists.
What’s known is that the slaves’ new owners broke certain promises to the priests. Many of the slaves were resold to plantations that were not near a Catholic Church, and they experienced even harsher treatment than under Georgetown ownership.
They successfully discovered the fate of Cornelius Hawkins, who was 13 years old when the Jesuits sold him. Hawkins appeared in the 1870 census as a husband, father, and free man. The team also located a descendant: Maxine Crump, now retired, was Baton Rouge’s first Black female TV anchor.
According to the Times, Crump was angry to learn about her ancestor’s ordeal and Georgetown’s profiting from his sale. Crump, 69, is unimpressed with apologies. She would like to see Georgetown offer scholarships to the descendants.
What do you think? Does Georgetown in 2016 owe anything to the descendants of its former slaves?
SOURCE: The New York Times | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty