Since April, Georgetown University has publicly agonized over how to make amends to the descendants of its mass slave sale that saved the university from financial ruin.
The New York Times reported that Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, announced his decision on Thursday.
After consulting with a university committee, which released its recommendations earlier that day, DeGioia listed these actions: a formal apology, an institute to study slavery, a memorial honoring its slaves, and renaming two campus buildings.
But the centerpiece of the plan is to award preferential admission status to descendants of all the slaves—not just the 272 involved in the infamous sale—who literally built the school and provided desperately needed income from their labor and sale.
This preferential status would be the same that Georgetown offers to the children and grandchildren of alumni.
According to Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, legacy students represent 7.6 percent of the class of 2018, compared to 16 percent at Harvard and 24 percent at Notre Dame.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon told the newspaper that legacy preference is weighed lightly in admissions decisions: at least 80 percent of legacy applicants were accepted without the benefit of their status.
“The quality of credentials [of legacy students] is very close to the average,” Deacon stated to The Hoya.
It’s unclear whether Georgetown is offering a real benefit to compensate their slaves’ descendants. What’s also unclear is how those accepted under the preference would pay tuition because the university is not offering them scholarships.
The story behind Georgetown’s 1838 slave sale is 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 a new one in Louisiana. Some family members were separated after the sale.
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? Two Georgetown Jesuit presidents negotiated the transaction that earned the college $3.3 million of current value. They used about $500,000 from the sale to settle Georgetown’s debts and keep the college open.
The Times interviewed two historians who pointed out that offering preferential admissions status to the descendants is unprecedented among the more than one dozen universities that have publicly acknowledged that they benefitted financially from slavery.
While Georgetown has moved the needle, it’s yet to be determined how far, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Craig Steven Wilder told the newspaper. We’ll have to wait and see the extent of Georgetown’s outreach to the slave descendants.