Georgetown addresses history with slavery, but seems to lack true remorse

Students walk past a Jesuit statue in front of Freedom Hall, center, formerly named Mulledy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. After renaming the Mulledy and McSherry buildings at Georgetown University temporarily to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Students walk past a Jesuit statue in front of Freedom Hall, center, formerly named Mulledy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. After renaming the Mulledy and McSherry buildings at Georgetown University temporarily to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

On September 1, Georgetown University announced plans to address the university’s dark history with slavery, as it was founded by slave owners and financed by slave labor. The university depended on financing from Jesuit plantations in Maryland and sold 272 slaves to save the institution from financial ruin in 1838. Georgetown is directly dealing with its extensive connection to slavery, something many institutions have swept under the rug. Georgetown is right in confronting its history and in supporting and perpetuating the institution, but not all of its actions truly seem to display the remorse necessary to atone for its past.

The renaming of buildings was a large aspect of Georgetown’s reparations. There were two buildings named after the presidents who commissioned the sale of slaves in 1838: Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall. They have been given the temporary names of Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall. Although these names represent important ideas in the history of racial injustice, they seem like an easy fix for the university to address a history of injustice without truly examining its past.  

The Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation has recommended two great names that have a deeper connection to Georgetown’s history. This group suggested renaming Freedom Hall as Isaac Hall, honoring the 65 year old slave whose name first appears on the documents of the sale of 272 slaves. They also recommended naming Remembrance Hall as Anne Marie Becraft Hall, to honor a free woman of color who positively impacted the Georgetown community in the nineteenth century. Anne Marie Becraft founded a school for black girls in 1827 around the Georgetown community, and later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic sisterhood instituted by women of African descent. On September 1, 2016, Georgetown announced plans to instill the recommended names. This is important because they have a much deeper connection to the university, its community and the history attached to its surrounding area. Isaac Hall will serve to remind all of those who use the building of the direct link Georgetown has to slavery, while Anne Marie Becraft Hall will commemorate a woman dedicated to education and religion, who faced prejudice as a black woman but still remained a powerful, positive force in the community.

The university also announced its plan to locate the descendants of the enslaved and persons to offer them the same consideration given to the Georgetown community in the admissions process.  It is extremely important for the university to recognize the effects, both past and present, of its participation in slavery; however, an admissions boost hardly seems like an appropriate solution. For starters, it seems rather unlikely that the university will be able to find all of the descendants when slave records are known to be difficult to track. The university’s Jesuit priests owned many more slaves. It does not make sense that the descendants of these slaves who also were affected by the university’s involvement with slavery will not receive the same advantage in the admissions process. Furthermore, this consideration assumes that many descendants wish to go to Georgetown, although many may not want to attend a school involved in enslaving their ancestors. Others simply may not have an interest in the university at all. This form of reparations does not seem to fully address Georgetown’s history in slavery nor is it an appropriate form of restitution.

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia announced that the university will establish the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, which will actively engage students with information regarding descendants and research. The announcement also stated that the university will strengthen Georgetown’s Library and Special Collections, promoting scholarship of racial justice and deepening archival resources. This form of reparation is so important because it acknowledges the university’s history, while using its resources to educate, improve the world and preserve the history. Another aspect of reparations that Georgetown has planned is a living and evolving memorial to the slaves from whom the university benefitted. This acknowledges that the past is ever shaping the present and that Georgetown’s previous support of slavery will continue to affect the world.

Georgetown has created a long list of restitutions to address their past involvement in slavery, and other institutions should do the same. The best of these reparations acknowledge what was done, commemorate it and use resources to improve the world through education, research and preservation.


Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.