The Jesuit-run Georgetown University has run into legal problems and a public relations nightmare as it tries to negotiate an agreement with descendants of slaves that the university owned and later sold in the early 1800s.
In a lengthy Wall Street Journal article, the descendants themselves are split between monetary compensation or backing a scholarship fund for black students.
Georgetown University took steps to reconcile with its past, such as hosting a 2017 press conference where an official apologized for the university’s 1838 sale of 272 slaves to a Louisiana plantation or renaming a dormitory from the school president who orchestrated the sale to the enslaved patriarch of the slaves. The hall’s new name is Isaac Hawkins Hall and the former name, Mulledy, has been removed.
The sale occurred because the then-Georgetown College was struggling financially and sold its 272 slaves to right its financial state.
Georgetown University is not alone in this, though. Other old institutions, such as Harvard, University of Virginia, and Brown, said that they will study their past related to slave ownership and how to address these past wrongs. But it will take time to figure out the best or practical way to address the issue.
In the words of Georgetown University spokeswoman, Meghan Dubyak, “The original sin of slavery has taken hundreds of years to address. Georgetown doesn’t expect to be able to ameliorate it in a short number of years.”
Much of the reparations debate focuses on how black family income and worth is far lower than that of white families, while white families have eight times more in net worth than black families. Some cities and states are studying reparations, such as the liberal Chicago suburb of Evanston that approved grants up to $25,000 to black residents due to past housing discrimination.
The back-and-forth negotiations between Georgetown University and the slave descendants have gone anything but smoothly. During one meeting, a university official allegedly told the descendants that the university did not owe them any money because “nobody on his side of the table had ever owned or sold anyone, and nobody on the descendants’ side was ever bought or sold, and therefore they owed each other nothing.” One of the descendants in attendance said she refrained from slapping the Jesuit priest over his alleged remarks, which the university did not confirm.
A former Kellogg executive, a descendant of the 272 slaves, worked with the university to propose a foundation to work towards socioeconomic progress for descendants and their children instead of direct monetary compensation. The deal meant that the Jesuits would raise $100 million for a foundation to fight racism and also create a Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation to raise $1 billion. The funds will go to pay education expenses for descendants and support elderly and infirm descendants.
The university will also donate $1 million to the foundation and establish a $400,000 healthcare and education charitable fund for descendants in Louisiana, in addition to creating legacy status for descendants and provide an admission track for their children.
But the apology tour and non-profit proposal were not enough for about 400 of the descendants, who are using the services of a Maryland lawyer to gain direct monetary compensation from Georgetown University. One of the descendants claimed that they were “pawns” and “props” used by the university for the press conference.