In June, I wrote a column about Georgetown University’s efforts to come to terms with its slaveholding past. At the start of the 2015-2016 school year, the university convened a task force to examine the past. The goals of the task force included examining the university’s slaveholding past and educating students and other members of the Georgetown community about slavery. The group, known as the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, includes faculty, students and alumni. It set itself an ambitious agenda, one that began even before the university was in session, with a thousand-page reading assignment on the history of slavery in the United States.
Over the course of the past school year, the working group created a digital online archive of documentary material about Georgetown’s slaves, sponsored teach-ins, lectures, conversation circles and an intensive two-week period of symposia on slavery at Georgetown. The group also provided grants to students and faculty seeking to engage the topic in new ways, looked at whether two buildings named after the Georgetown presidents who in 1838 approved a controversial sale of 272 slaves should be renamed—it decided they did—and continued to ask how Georgetown could and should atone for its slaveholding past.
These efforts drew national attention, not only due to the school’s thoroughness, in the opinion of David Collins, S.J., chair of the working group who spoke to me over the phone this past spring, but because of the detailed records Georgetown kept on its slaves. These records allowed newspapers and other publications to draw a fuller picture of slave life than is usually possible and go back more than a century. When the university was founded in 1789, the university relied on proceeds from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to operate.
Even before the working group was convened a year ago, Georgetown had decided to establish a Department of African-American Studies and hire faculty for it. On the advice of the working group, the university will now establish a new Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies at Georgetown to develop programs and support sustained research and teaching about slavery at the university. It will also build a public memorial to the slaves once owned by the Georgetown. A new working group that will include slave descendants will be formed to advise the university on the creation of the memorial, President John J. DeGioia said on Sept. 1, in an address on the new steps the university is taking.
Georgetown’s wide-ranging, thorough and thoughtful efforts demonstrate that greater exposure to the complex realities of slavery, or other forms of historical injustice, can be influential and affecting. “There is a kind of detachment from this history that’s a problem not only at Georgetown but in American society more broadly,” Fr. Collins told me. “There is something dysfunctional about taking credit for the good things and taking no note of the bad things. One of the things these teach-ins succeeded wildly at is demonstrating how moving attachment is even to something as sad and deplorable as this.”
Georgetown is hardly alone in once owning slaves. Many of the oldest universities in the United States were supported by slave labor—Harvard, Yale, Brown, the University of Virginia to name a few. As documented in Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, the development of higher education in this country has deep roots in the slave-owning economy, almost completely so in the colonial period and substantially so in the period between independence and the Civil War.
Speaking about Georgetown’s plans to redress the past in an interview with American University’s WAMU 88.5 radio, Mr. Wilder commended the final report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation for capturing the gravitas of its subject. He noted that because of its religious identity Georgetown has had to grapple with its slave-owning history not just intellectually or as a historical problem, as other universities have done, but as a moral problem that challenges its Catholic identity and mission. “I think in many ways, that's exactly why both the tone of the report and the scale of the actions being taken are quite unique when you put it against its peer institutions,” Mr. Wilder said. “Georgetown can't do what a lot of other institutions have been doing for the past decade…which loosely acknowledges that they have some history with slavery and then pushes the burden of pursuing that history and dealing with it off to scholars and researchers.”
In presenting the working group’s final report and the university’s response to it, Mr. DeGioia noted that the university is taking ownership of a critical part of its history, a history that was known but not fully acknowledged or alive to many in the Georgetown community before the last year. Though the task of the working group has been completed with the submission of its report, he said new work is opening up for the university. “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,” he said, citing a wide range of inequities that exist today, from unfair housing to disparities in education, health and wealth between white and black Americans to the mass incarceration of black men. Devising policies to change these will be a priority for the university’s schools and research centers and a new Working Group on Racial Injustice has been convened to examine and foster this work.
The final report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation is online as is Mr. DeGioia’s speech responding to it. The report is worth reading and the president’s speech worth watching, both for the ambitious new mission he articulates for Georgetown and for the passion with which he calls on the nation to recognize and reconcile itself to the original evil that accompanied its birth, the institution of slavery, and its legacy today. It is a speech that could be given by a U.S. presidential candidate, and it is a pity that it has not been. The short video of members of the working group talking about the past year’s work on the project that is included in Mr. DeGioia’s address is personal and poignant enough to make you cry. But it is also hopeful. The whole-heartedness and commitment with which Georgetown has examined its flawed history and its current relevance will make you think, and think again, about a topic that affects all Americans.
Margot Patterson is a writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.