Georgetown University Continues to Own Up to Its Slavery Past

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Georgetown University President John DeGioia talks to Michelle Miller of CBS News in the school's Riggs Library.

After revelations about Georgetown University’s slave-owner past — and how it took the lead in selling 272 slaves in 1838 — that caught the attention and ire of students, faculty and alumni, university president John DeGioia began his own campaign to meet criticisms of Georgetown’s past sins of slavery head-on.

Besides the sale of slaves, the university admits the breaking up of enslaved families — expressly forbidden by the Vatican as a condition of the sale — was another wrong. Only today are some Americans learning that they are descended from slaves once owned by the university.

Important in the search to verify who might be related today to the slaves sold by the school has been the work by a Georgetown alum, Richard Cellini, who founded the Georgetown Memory Project and has connected the school and descendants.

DeGioia met with Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, president of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society in Spokane, Washington, June 13. Her great-great-great grandparents, Nace and Biby Butler, were part of the 1838 slave sale. DeGioia also met June 30 with slave descendants in Baton Rouge and Maringouin, Louisiana — most notably those of Cornelius Hawkins, 13 years old at the time of the sale.

It is believed that DeGioia is the first university president in America to confront an institution’s slave trade past by meeting directly with those whose ancestors were once owned by it.

“It seems to me that the story of Georgetown and slavery is a microcosm of the whole history of slavery,” said Professor Adam Rothman, a member of Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory & Reconciliation, in April.

From November’s meeting with student protestors about names on campus buildings to this month’s meetings with descendants of Georgetown, DeGioia also appeared on CBS News July 11, met last month with the Washington Post and was quoted in a front-page story in April in the New York Times, which ran a follow-up a few weeks ago.

First reported locally — in the campus press — details of the slave sale to pay off Georgetown University’s debts and keep it operating were revealed to many only recently. While public knowledge, the sale was not something anyone often discussed. After a Nov. 12 student demonstration on campus and a sit-in in the front of his office on Nov. 13 and 14, DeGioia approved stripping names off two main campus buildings, which honored Georgetown University presidents who worked on the 1838 deal that sold 272 slaves and separated family members.

University archives document the transaction that sent 272 slaves from the Jesuits’ Maryland plantations to former Louisiana governor (later U.S. Congressman) Henry Johnson and his associate Jesse Beatty through the efforts of Georgetown President Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., and Rev. William McSherry, S.J. Ironically, church records of the slaves — because most of them were Catholic, help in tracking down descendants.

Georgetown University — founded in 1789, before Washington, D.C., existed — is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning in the U.S. The money from the slave sale allowed it to grow. The 1838 sale of 272 slaves translates in monetary terms to roughly $3.25 million in today’s dollars.

“As a university, we are a place where conversations are convened and dialogue is encouraged, even on topics that may be difficult,” DeGioia wrote in a Nov. 14 letter to the university. “This is what we will continue to do at Georgetown. We are supportive of our students and proud of the depth of their engagement in these urgent conversations.”

In November, some students demanded that the university offer more information about black history on the campus, including programs, plaques and marking where slaves were buried, set up required diversity training for professors and fund an endowment for black professors.

“This is an important moment in the life of our university,” DeGioia told the Washington Post June 20. “I don’t think putting a plaque on the wall is going to be an answer.”

Georgetown University is still deciding what to do in a permanent way to memorialize those enslaved persons sold so long ago and how to acknowledge their descendants. Some specific plans are expected to be announced by the school by September.

Jessica Tilson, related to the Georgetown slaves, spoke to the Baton Rouge Advocate about DeGioia and his June visit. “He actually listened to us,” she said. “I’m happy that he just took the initiative to put it out there in the public and say, ‘This is what we did and we’re trying to make amends but we don’t know how.’ How many places admit to actually selling slaves and then actively look for them?”

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