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Universities must reckon with histories of racism

In 1838, the Jesuit priests who ran what is now called Georgetown University sold off 272 slaves. The sale, estimated to be worth around $3.3 million in today’s dollars, helped to pay off the then struggling university’s debt. While something like this is obviously horrific by today’s standards, the size and circumstances of the sale made it controversial even at the time.

The 272 people sold included women, children, and the elderly. Little to no concern was paid to the conditions the slaves were being sold into. Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy, then the president of Georgetown University, made promises that the slaves would be sold in such a way that no families would be separated, and that they’d be sold to plantations where they’d be allowed to continue their Christian faith. None of these promises were kept.

Recently, student protests have occurred on Georgetown’s campus about the sale. Students staged a sit-in outside the university president’s office, wanting to start a conversation on this specific issue and how the institution of slavery benefitted the school in general. Principal among their grievances was an on-campus building — Mulledy Hall, named after the ex-president who arranged the sale. These protests have compelled Georgetown University to revisit this dark chapter in its history. Alumni got involved as well, and the Georgetown Memory Project was set up to track down the descendants of the 272 sold.

The university also removed the names of Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, another college president involved in the sale, from the buildings named after them. They have rechristened these buildings Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall until more permanent names can be decided upon.

Most importantly, however, the university has publicly apologized for the entire episode, and has offered preferential admissions treatment to the descendants of those slaves. In the process, Georgetown says its aim is to tackle its sordid history with slavery head on and start a conversation on this issue on college campuses across the country.

The public response to this apology has been decidedly mixed. On one side, Georgetown University has been praised for its humility and for attempting to trace the lineage of families that were separated centuries ago. On the other, the university has been criticized for missing the proverbial forest for the trees. While the move is a step in the right direction for the descendants of the 272 slaves directly concerned here, it completely sidesteps the larger issue of the university’s attitude towards slavery in the 19th century. Further, several of the slaves’ descendants and the protesting students have wondered why they hadn’t been included in the decision-making process. The apology was deemed meaningless, and the university has been accused of not following it up with any real action.

If the issue is one of reconciliation and reparations, what does the university really sacrifice in an apology and a tweaked admissions policy?

It is The Tartan’s view that Georgetown University’s so called atonement for its 1838 sins is a step in the right direction; that being said, by isolating the descendants and protestors from the decision making process, the university is ignoring the very people it is trying to serve. As such, the apology and surrounding actions don’t go nearly as far as they need to. While these steps will probably succeed at starting a conversation around the issue of slavery reparations in general, it isn’t nearly enough. The lack of meaningful concrete steps will leave any amount of debate seeming hollow. Additionally, this case makes for an interesting study in how older universities around the country should respond to their checkered pasts regarding slavery, segregation, and racism.

The student activists and slave descendants have novel ideas for how reparations can be dealt with, but Georgetown isn’t currently paying enough attention. The student activists propose a new endowment fund that would equal the current value of the profit garnered from the 272 slaves in order to recruit black professors. This idea is ingenious in how it acknowledges the link between the horrors of 19th century slavery and racial injustice today. In the true spirit of reparations, it manages to provide tangible benefit without talking down to the afflicted communities. It successfully uses the case of the 272 slaves as a platform to tackle the issue of reparations for slavery at a much broader scale than what the university just announced.

Several of the slaves’ descendants are suggesting something that is far more radical. They are calling for a billion dollar reconciliation fund that they want Georgetown to spearhead the creation of. This move has been misunderstood and mocked across mainstream media, seeing as Georgetown’s entire endowment is worth approximately $1.5 billion dollars. The Tartan believes that this criticism is unwarranted, and found a number of very interesting ideas in the proposal. First and foremost, the reconciliation fund as it has been proposed isn’t limited to Georgetown. As a national fund, it addresses the issue of slavery reparations on the largest scale possible. Further, it draws virtually every major American university into the issue and would successfully start a conversation capable of being backed by large-scale action; This is something that Georgetown’s current plan cannot possibly hope to accomplish.

The next question, clearly, is where a university such as Carnegie Mellon, established after the abolition of slavery, belongs in this debate. Racism and oppression can take many forms, of which slavery is arguably the most horrific. Due to its age, Carnegie Mellon has had far fewer brushes with overt racism than a school such as Georgetown.
What we must beware of, however, is to not use that fact as an excuse to evade this entire debate. The same problems, though not as severe, do afflict us as well. Even today, black people are an underrepresented community at Carnegie Mellon. There isn’t enough of a dialogue on race and its cultural meanings here. Our moral obligation to participate in this debate stems not from horrific past transgressions, but from the little things that have collectively resulted in a culture of apathy towards issues of race.