Georgetown Is Making Amends To The Descendants Of Slaves From Whom It Profited

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In a speech that will go down in history as one of the greatest examples of political oratory, Michelle Obama referenced the building of the White House by slaves. It was a potent point, and one that is often forgotten when Americans are swept up in patriotism and pride. Slaves did in fact build the landmark at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they also built countless other famed institutions, including universities  – some which bought and sold slaves, just as did private citizens.

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Georgetown University, located in Washington, D.C., is such an institution. In April of 2016, the New York Times published “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?,” a look back at an 1838 transaction in which university leaders sold off many of the slaves it owned in order to earn the funds necessary to keep the facility operational. Now, it seems the university is poised to take steps towards some kind of atonement, in a historic announcement made today (September 1). According to the Times‘ Rachel L. Swarns, Georgetown “will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved.”

slave auction

University president John J. DeGioia will make a speech this afternoon in which he is expected to make a formal apology for the sins of the past, but also measures that aim to dramatically alter the way Georgetown addresses the ills of slavery and its responsibility to improve the education of its African-American students. Such measures include “an institute for the study of slavery,” a “public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution,” the renaming of two campus buildings (“one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order”), and, in effect, the initiation of a nationwide conversation about the concept of reparations in 2016.

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DeGioia’s move to offer an advantage to descendants of the 272 slaves in question an advantage in the admissions process is being called “unprecedented,” and it takes place in the same month that the National Museum of African American History & Culture is slated to open in the nation’s capital.