In the last year or so, Georgetown University has earnestly taken on the task of righting an awful wrong — if such a thing can be done. The university is confronting a tragic episode in its history: the 1838 selling of 272 enslaved African Americans owned by the Society of Jesus, the Roman Catholic order of priests, which founded the college in 1789.
Last April, after meetings with some descendants of those enslaved, the university offered a formal apology and renamed two main campus buildings to honor Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved youth, and Anne Marie Becraft, an educator of black women. It also launched a program of special legacy admissions for descendants of the 272 individuals.
In a Jan. 12 message to the descendants, the university and the Jesuits wrote: “In conversations with many of you, and through reflection and prayer, we have sought to determine additional ways that we could work together to best contribute to addressing the ongoing consequences of slavery.”
The message continued: “Our conversations have reinforced the importance of building a strong and lasting framework for dialogue, partnership, and collaboration among the Descendants, Georgetown, and the Jesuits. We believe that developing this framework from a set of guiding principles can enable us to work together on important ideas over the long-term. Our histories are inextricably linked and, in that spirit, we seek ways to move forward together.
“With a sense of humility and gratitude, guided by the many conversations we have had with Descendants, we wish to propose a draft set of principles for your consideration and to hear from you your ideas and reflections. We believe seeking engagement and consensus around a set of principles can help us move forward in developing a partnership and determining the most meaningful and significant ideas for our communities to pursue together.”
It seems they’ve just begun. Some ask: Is it enough? One group is seeking more than dialogue; it is expecting direct restitution, if not reparations. Another group previously called for a foundation with a $1-billion fund. These groups point to the profit from the sales of slaves that helped pay off the debts of the financially strapped school at the time, ensuring the future of what is now a thriving 21st-century university.
Georgetown University has entered a humbling era, ready for its own Lent, made even more poignant by the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. this April. In the years ahead, we may just find out what is enough.