MY ANGLE: Universities involved in slave trade should follow Georgetown’s example to compensate for horrible past

(Photo used by permission of Creative Commons)
Copley Hall, a student dormitory, at Georgetown University.

In 1832, Georgetown University (in the District of Columbia) sold 272 slaves, making a profit of what is now worth $3.3 million, to rid the school of debt, according to the Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. In addition to the slave sales, Jesuit-owned plantations worked by slaves were a source of funding for the university until the end of the Civil War.

In response to this, Georgetown announced on Sept. 1 that two halls previously named after Georgetown presidents who organized the slave sale will be renamed.

Mulledy Hall will now be called Isaac Hall, after the first slave on the list of those sold in 1832, and McSherry Hall will be renamed Anne Marie Becraft Hall, after an African-American woman who started a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood in 1827.

Furthermore, the school will construct the Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies at Georgetown.  

Georgetown’s stripping the halls of the names of headmasters who organized the slave trade demonstrates their recognition of past mistakes. And founding the Institute shows the university’s desire for and commitment to progress.

Additionally, Georgetown will give the descendants of slaves the same edge in admissions as applicants with legacies.

Slavery was an abominable part of our history, and unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for universities   to sell and own slaves. Some of the universities that participated in the slave trade include Brown, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Atlanta Black Star Newspaper.

Some universities, such as Brown, have responded by promising to add the part they played in the slave trade to their curriculum. Others, such as Harvard, have acknowledged their role by installing plaques and other symbols of the university’s connection to slavery. However, Georgetown is the first university to give an admissions edge to the descendants of slaves.

The change in admissions policy was Georgetown’s most controversial announcement.

My mom went to Georgetown to get her law degree, so if I apply to Georgetown, I will be given an edge in the admissions process. If an applicant has a better chance of acceptance simply because a relative has been educated there, then a person whose ancestors have been severely wronged by Georgetown should be granted an edge as well.

Giving the descendants of slaves a better chance of getting into Georgetown will actively make up for the disadvantages that they have been facing for generations as the descendants of slaves.

Even after slavery was abolished, sharecropping (a type of farming in which tenant farmers pay rent by giving landowners a share of their crops) kept former slaves in the bonds of debt. This kept descendants in poverty through the mid-twentieth century.

Georgetown offering the descendants of slaves a better chance at acceptance gives them a chance to escape the cycle of poverty. It could also decrease the harmful (and very wrong) racial stereotypes that perpetuate the idea that some races are smarter than others.

However, one problem with this is accurately and successfully identifying the descendants of the slaves sold from Georgetown. Records of slaves were seldom kept, and since slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, linking slaves to people today will be very difficult. Consequently, Georgetown has hired genealogists to research slaves’ lineage to be as accurate as possible.

Other universities need to acknowledge their part in the slave trade as Georgetown has. Ignoring the past won’t allow any progress. Universities should consider following Georgetown’s model by giving preference to slave descendants, making up  for hundreds of years of disadvantages.

By Larkin Barnard-Bahn

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