Georgetown students voted to pay for reparations. On Juneteenth, the debate comes to Congress

Actor Danny Glover, right, and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, left, testify about reparation for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Actor Danny Glover, right, and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, left, testify about reparation for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Randal Agostini
1 month ago

This is the sort of debate we should be having in Congress. It is the responsibility of Government to protect and serve all citizens equally, but America has always been held hostage to political games. The debate was immensely interesting, because it explained the various ways that blacks have been discriminated against. The only reason that the country has been saved from real upheaval is because African Americans are a sector of society that have proven to be more resilient than most. If reparations are not the answer then greater awareness must be devoted to this problem so that every black American child is given an equal opportunity. This is a stain on society that still awaits restoration and resolution.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Blacks were progressing very positively from the effects of slavery and racism after the Civil War. Then liberal whites installed the War on Poverty and their progress stopped. The condition of blacks today are not the result of slavery or Jim Crow laws but Democratic party policies implemented in the 1960's. I suggest the author and all the editors at America read Jason Riley and Thomas Sowell on this. The incredible cynicism is that the Democratic Party will not acknowledge this while at the same time crying racism at others.

James Mullin
1 month ago

A black actor and a black author both worth millions testify in favor of reparations. This is too rich to even make up.

Stephen Shore
4 weeks 1 day ago

OK, now lets hear from the Native Americans. I would assume that they would have an even greater claim than African Americans - as in please return our land! A mass migration back to Europe will soon be in the discussion by all the feel good liberals.

Slavery was a great sin and a horrible institution. However, the greatest legacy of the horribleness of slavery is the 12% of the population in this country that is of African descent.

Also - my ancestors died to free the slaves. I think they might have even given the greatest of all sacrifices.

Lets end this stupid discussion of "reparations" and move forward. It just opens up too many cans of worms and needs to end.

Will Nier
4 weeks 1 day ago

Right on what have we done for the Native American. Put them on reservation in poverty!!!!! Oh the Blacks have it so much better yes they do by golly. If this reparation bull is good for the Blacks then include the Native Americans.

Will Nier
4 weeks 1 day ago

Totally insane in terms of government handling out any money. It wou,d be better if the original descendants of slave owners be sued to pay the descendants of the original slaves provided a record has been kept and verified.

E.Patrick Mosman
4 weeks 1 day ago

The idea of paying reparations to someone who was never a slave by those who never owned a slave is ludicrous. How would eligibility be determined? Would reparations be limited to only those that can prove conclusivley that the are direct descendants of two slave families or would or would would anyone with even a trace evidence of African heritage in a DNA test be eligible? Since none of today's potentially eligible recipients were slaves perhaps reparations should be a one-way flight ticket to their ancestors home country.

Tim O'Leary
4 weeks 1 day ago

This is a tough mathematical problem. Here's how I would calculate the list to pay into reparations:
1. Begin with those who have ancestors who voted Democrat pre-bellum (the pro-slavery party)
2. Add to them those who have ancestors who voted for Democrats post-bellum until the civil rights vote (the pro-Jim Crow party)
3. And include those who have ever directly personally voted for a Democrat (since the party of slavery can never be forgiven)
4. Those who actually worked for the Democrat party should pay double the base rate (triple if they got elected)
5. Remove all those who have an ancestor who was a slave
6. Remove all those who have an ancestor who fought in the Union army
7. Remove all those who have an ancestor who lived in the free states
8. Remove all those who have an ancestor who came to the US post bellum
9. Remove all those who have an ancestor in the South who freed their slaves
10. Remove all those who have a veteran who fought for America against foreign enemies
11. Remove those who have an ancestor who was Native American (DNA test required for 1/16th - 1/32nd or smaller will not suffice, sorry Elizabeth)
12. Remove those who are below the current poverty line
13. Remove those who have ever felt put upon or who think they got the short end of the stick

As to who should get reparations:
1. Include only those who can proved by DNA testing to have exclusively slave ancestors (to avoid charlatans like Rachel Dolezal)
2. Exclude those whose family have received aggregate welfare above the reparations amount
3. Exclude those who have ever committed a crime against a descendant of a slave
How to pay: Pay the reparations in Confederate dollars (to stop the South from rising again)

Alternative: Make it voluntary and see how much virtue signaling we can get beyond Georgetown and the Episcopal Church.

Christopher Lowery
4 weeks 1 day ago

I'm often disappointed at the lack of Christian love and charity expressed in the comments section of America; but the ignorance and ill will expressedin many of the comments on this article leave me truly aghast!

Those who suggest that enough has been done already to compensate for the extreme injustice visited on African Americans are showing their ignorance of American history and the arguments being made by those advocating the concept of reparations.

America's original sin of slavery has been a stain on this nation's soul that continues to the present day. Anyone who thinks that sin was extirpated by the Civil War is ignorant of the history of that war and what has happened since. First, while the South fought to retain slavery (what it euphemistically called "Southern rights"), the North fought to preserve the union.

After the war, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enacted that stripped the "freed" slaves of any semblance of the civil rights promised in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In addition to denying blacks access to decent public accommodations and services, and their constitutional right to vote, those laws effectively perpetuated de facto slavery by making "vagrancy" a crime, and leasing out those so convicted as contract laborers, often in jobs with high mortality rates. Studies have documented that employers worked convict laborers harder than the former slaves, since they had no capital invested in the convicts. As an example of how pervasive and profitable the practice was to the states, Alabama derived nearly three-quarters of its total revenue in 1889 from the leasing of convict labor.

Because of these laws, former slaves had two choices -- continue to work for their former masters as sharecroppers, barely subsisting and with no opportunity for advancement, or to flee to a Northern state, where the opportunities might be somewhat better. Of course, trying to leave exposed them to arrest for vagrancy. Convict leasing wasn't formally abolished until 1928, but it continued into the 1940s in a different form as chain gangs working on government projects. PBS has produced a couple of excellent shows on this subject. (And, yes, poor whites were subjected to convict labor and chain gangs, but not in the number, nor in the depraved treatment, that was intentionally visited on blacks.)

There were a myriad of other official government practices that severely constrained the progress of African Americans. The racial terrorism that continued in Southern states into the 1950s and 1960s against those who advocated for racial justice and civil rights is a matter of pubic record. However, there were also broader practices, such as the mandated withholding of access to government-financed housing, FHA mortgages, veterans' housing and education benefits and other programs that were vehicles for the creation of the Great American Middle Class -- programs that benefitted Americans living today through the wealth that they enabled their forebears to accumulate and pass on to them -- that remained in effect into the 1960s, with impacts that carry on through to the present day.

Almost every immigrant group that came to these shores has had to endure prejudice and difficulty; but no group, other than Native Americans, has had to endure the degree of overt public and private oppression visited upon African Americans, and anyone who denies that fact is simply and willfully ignorant of the truth. Whether the appropriate response to that record is to enact formal reparations is a matter of legitimate public discussion debate. But to deny the record upon which the proposal is predicated, or the appropriateness of the discussion, is both ignorant and unjust. The fact that that ignorance and injustice is spewed in this publication makes it doubly intolerable.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

I suggest you read Thomas Sowell and Jason Riley who have written extensively on the causes of Black poverty in the United States. Blacks were progressing till the mid 1960's when Democratic party policies caused their progress to stop. It wasn't slavery or Jim Crow laws but liberal do-gooders whose policies essentially destroyed Black family structure and brought in low skilled immigrants to compete with them for jobs.

Christopher Lowery
4 weeks ago

First, I've read Sowell extensively, and am thoroughly familiar his argument -- it has nothing to do with the question of justice and reparations. African Americans have historically been the canaries in the American coal mine; the first to feel the impacts of negative economic changes that are later experienced by those in the majority. The social stresses that have are negatively impacting segments of the African American community have more to do with secular economic trends, including the transfer of industry first from inner cities to suburbs and exurbs effectively closed to blacks, then the overall decline of good paying manufacturing jobs, the suppression of unions and the eventual deindustrialization of the American economy. While blacks felt the impact of these changes first, the white working class has since been impacted by them, with opiate addiction, alcoholism and suicides rising to such levels as to result in increased mortality rates and declining life expectancies beyond anything experienced in this country before. .

Second, the antipathy of whites toward blacks have historically been exploited by reactionary interests to divide Americans along racial lines and to induce whites to vote their racial fears and prejudices, rather than unite with blacks around the common interests of working families. The libertarian economic policies advocated by Sowell, Riley, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and their rich patrons, based on tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of industry, privatization of government services, suppression of unions, etc., are the very policies that have produced the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth at the very top (higher than it's ever been since the Gilded Age), the euthanasia of the working class, and the increasing closing off of paths to opportunity and advancement that were previously open for those lower on the economic pyramid. But that's a discussion for another day...

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Two things:
You failed to address the causes that Sowell and Riley pointed to but rattled off a bunch of non sequiturs. Sowell and Riley are all about justice and fairness.
Second you accuse others of being ignorant and less Christian than yourself when in fact what you recommend will almost certainly not solve anything and make things worse.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said there were "phrases that serve as an excuse for not thinking." One of these phrases that substitute for thought today is one that depicts the current problems of blacks in America as "a legacy of slavery."

A quote from Thomas Sowell that is appropriate

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on "the legacy of slavery" with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.

A quote from Thomas Sowell that is appropriate

Tim O'Leary
4 weeks ago

Christopher- you couldn’t be more wrong on reparations. The very concept is racist and anti-Christian. It would perpetuate discrimination and dependency and most hurt it’s intended beneficiaries. It makes a mockery of injustice. As a concept, it deserves ridicule as it is taking limited resources and discussion away from real problems today. None of its proponents are being sincere as none have even proposed a plan for determining the payers and payees. They are charlatans virtue signaling just to get votes from gullible citizens.

E.Patrick Mosman
4 weeks ago

"I'm often disappointed at the lack of Christian love and charity expressed"
What a preposterous assumption about those who oppose paying reparations to anyone who was never a slave by those who never owned a slave. Opposing reparations has absolutely nothing to do with one's love of others or one's charitable contributions, it is pointing out the complete lack of any basis for today's attempt to create another "Victim"
class with no basis.

Christopher Lowery
3 weeks 6 days ago

Your characterization of this as an "attempt to create another 'Victim'" is precisely why the issue is worthy of discussion.

The argument of those advocating reparations is based on three facts:

First, beyond its physical and moral inhumanity, slavery was a form of theft of services that created a liability of the nation (not individuals) that collectively benefitted from that stolen labor that was central to its growth and prosperity. The cotton trade was "the" key export industry of the pre-Civil War United States, and its trade was a key to the growth of Wall Street. Much of the investment capital that fueled the broader development the nation was earned from that trade.

Second, the overt legal repression of African Americans continued long after the legal end of slavery -- indeed well into the 1960s -- so to say that the end of slavery terminated any ongoing obligation for redress ignores (indeed, denies) that continuing history.

Third, the denial of equal access by blacks to government programs (education, housing, etc.) that were central to the rise of the Great American Middle Class from the New Deal through to the 1960s disadvantaged blacks relative to others down to this very day -- so much for creating "another 'victim'." Other Americans, even those living today, continue to benefit from those advantages in the competition for jobs, access to good neighborhood schools, admission to elite universities, etc.

Now, whether those realities justify formal reparations, and whether reparations (in any form) are practicable at this point in our history, are separate matters on which reasonable people can differ -- but they are worthy of debate, and that is my only point. I happen to believe the record is clear with regard to the justice of the matter. However, I also believe the task of defining a form or forms that reparations could take that would be equitable to both sides, and capable of securing a political consensus, is (as these comments make clear) another matter entirely. While the issues may be irresolvable, nonetheless, I believe it's a discussion and debate worth having, if only to educate Americans to a fuller understanding of the maltreatment of African Americans. Maybe a greater appreciation of that history would sensitize more of us to the broader disadvantages even now being experienced not only by many African Americans, but also by all struggling members of American society, all of whom are equally worthy of our concern and Christian charity.

With that, I'll conclude my participation in this discussion.

E.Patrick Mosman
3 weeks 5 days ago

"an attempt to create another 'Victim'" is precisely why the issue is worthy of discussion."
Obviously you are about 50 years too late to the "Create another Victim" caravan as President Johnson's Great Society was the beginning and how has that solved the problems?
"The “Great Society,” which recently marked its 50th anniversary. President Lyndon Johnson, after all, vowed “to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty.” That’s a tall order. Five decades, nearly $22 trillion and roughly 80 welfare programs later and did not solve the problems. Since Johnson the government
has created a plethora of new legal and financial programs to stop discrimination and to aid minorities, women and a whole host of others who claim some form of victim hood. Reparations today would be the start of rewarding many those classified as 'victims' who are already recipients of massive amounts of government assistance with additional aid as "never a slave" victim status.

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