Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the USA, will take a series of steps to atone for the role that slavery played in its early history, the school’s president is expected to announce on Thursday.
As part of the plan, the university will offer a formal apology for the school’s role and create an institute for the study of slavery at what is also the nation’s oldest Jesuit university, officials told The New York Times. It will also offer preferential status in admissions to descendants of the slaves it once kept.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia told The Washington Post that he agreed in principle with the idea for preferential admission, but wanted to study how it would work in practice.
Georgetown will also erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited it, The Times reported.
Over the past several months, university officials at Georgetown have openly spoken about the role that slaves played in keeping it afloat in its early years.“ We want to embrace them as members of our family,” DeGioia toldThe Post.
The moves are expected to come as a university panel on Thursday releases a report recommending that Georgetown also grant financial aid to the descendants of slaves the Maryland Jesuits owned, including a group of 272 slaves sold in 1838, in part to pay off the school’s debts. The sale, which generated $115,000, or the equivalent of $3.3 million today, sent the slaves to Louisiana plantations, separating families, The Post reported.
Scholars have discussed the episode for decades, but recent public debates about race nationwide have drawn attention to it anew.
The Georgetown panel said DeGioia should offer “a formal, spoken apology” in a bid for reconciliation.
Over the past few years, several top universities, including Harvard, Brown and the University of Virginia, have come to terms with their role in the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Georgetown was founded by Jesuit priests in 1789, who relied on slave-holding Jesuit plantations in Maryland to finance operations. At the time, the area in western Washington, D.C., was then part of Maryland. The Society of Jesus had actually opened its first school in southern Maryland in 1640, nearly 150 years earlier.
Like many colleges of the era, which offered the equivalent of college-prep coursework, Georgetown later evolved into a full-fledged college, then a university, with a law school, medical school and other professional specialties. But in its early days, Georgetown focused on producing a much-needed supply of priests to the growing nation. While it didn’t train them specifically for the priesthood, it prepared them for seminary.
DeGioia, who assembled the working group last September, said on Wednesday that the USA is “still coping with our failure to address the original evil of slavery.”