Georgetown students voted to pay for reparations. On Juneteenth, the debate comes to Congress
On June 4, the board of directors at Georgetown University met for their annual meeting, where many students hoped they would vote on a student-led reparations initiative. In April, students passed a referendum proposal for an increase in undergraduate tuition fees by $27.20, a figure chosen to honor the 272 enslaved persons sold by the Jesuits who ran the university in 1838. The increase, organizers state, would enable the school to pay reparations to the descendants of the GU272, as the group has become known.
Meghan Dubyak, a university spokesperson, told America via email that “the board will not be voting ‘up or down’” on the fund proposed in the student referendum but “will engage thoughtfully...the issues presented by the student referendum.” Ms. Dubyak added that the university was “working to contribute to a vital national conversation about the need to promote racial justice and address the legacy of slavery in our country.”
According to a press release on the university website, the “Board of Directors discussed the April Student Referendum” and “plans to engage in follow-up discussions with student leaders.” The board meeting was convened a month after classes concluded at Georgetown.
In April, 66 percent of the students at Georgetown voting in the referendum approved of the increase in their tuition to fund the initiative. Hannah Michael, a junior studying African American studies at Georgetown University, helped lead the initiative.
According to Ms. Michael, the referendum would allocate funds that could provide the descendant communities with resources for things like primary education and medical assistance.
In April, 66 percent of the students at Georgetown voting in the referendum approved of the increase in their tuition to fund the initiative.
There have been no instances of direct financial restitutions being paid to African Americans for the sins of slavery. However, the United States has paid reparations for other reasons. In 1948, Congress passed the Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act, which allowed the U.S. government to allocate more than $30 million in reparations for Japanese Americans who had been placed into concentration camps during World War II. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that each survivor was given $20,000. And in early 2016, the State Department assisted the French government in paying reparations to Holocaust survivors for the government’s role in deporting them to Nazi death camps via French trains.
The student-led effort at Georgetown is the first example of a reparations effort at a major U.S. educational institution. In Washington on June 19, House members held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on reparations, spotlighting the debate over whether the United States should consider compensation for the descendants of slaves in the United States.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations after the retirement of Rep. John Conyers, said black Americans “are the only group that can singularly claim to have been slaves under the auspices of the United States government.” She said the hearing “is not a symbolic action” but about legitimate legislation that should be signed into law.
“I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?” she said to a packed hearing room.
The date of the hearing was far from coincidental: June 19 is annually celebrated among many African Americans as Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States and the date in 1865 when, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas.
In recent months, several Democratic presidential candidates have expressed their support for slavery reparations or for further research into the matter, including Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. But the notion of reparations is far from becoming broadly accepted among the U.S. general public. According to a 2018 survey, only 26 percent of the U.S. public supported “some kind of compensation or cash benefits for the descendants of slaves.”
The process at Georgetown began in the fall of 2015, when the university established the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to “engage the historical role of our University in the institution of slavery and its legacies in our nation.” The working group created a report to help students and faculty further understand the school’s history and renamed buildings to honor the enslaved persons sold by the school.
According to the report, at the same time Georgetown launched a related set of efforts “to strengthen Georgetown’s commitment to racial justice” with the creation of the Department of African American Studies, the hiring of new faculty and a Working Group charged with setting the foundation for an Institute for the Study of Racial Justice. The university has also granted legacy status to descendants of the 272 applying for admission.
Melisande Short-Colomb discovered in 2016 that she was a descendant of one of the enslaved people that the Jesuits sold to sustain Georgetown. In 2017, at 63, she took the university up on its offer of admission to descendants like her and became a Georgetown student. Like many Georgetown students, she argues that the initiatives undertaken by the university have been significant but are not enough.
Ms. Short-Colomb, who is also involved in reconciliation efforts at Georgetown, believes the broader reparations initiative would have allowed the institution to set an example for the rest of the country. Others, like Hunter Estes, part of the 2018 graduating class, opposed the referendum because it did not explicitly lay out how the funds would be allocated.
Georgetown University was founded in 1789 by the Society of Jesus. The university admitted its first African American student, Samuel Halsey Jr., in 1950. Currently, less than 8 percent of the student body is African American.
According to Ms. Dubyak, throughout this process, Georgetown alumni leaders met with the students involved in the referendum. Ms. Dubyak said that the university is grateful for the “perspectives and engagement of our students in grappling with the history and ongoing legacy of slavery in our community.” She added that the student-led initiative was extremely valuable to the university and “will help guide our continued engagement with students, faculty and staff, members of the Descendant community, and the Society of Jesus.”