Georgetown University Will Give Preferential Admission Status to Descendants of Slaves

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Georgetown University is an elite, Jesuit university in Washington. Like many institutions in the U.S., it profited in the past from ties to slavery and the slave trade. Today the university announced steps to be taken towards acknowledging and atoning for that period in its history.

According to the New York Times, Georgetown in the 18th and 19th century relied financially on slave labor and the sale of slaves. Slaves were also forced to work on campus, and the school’s oldest buildings were likely built by slave labor. Then in 1838 the university was struggling financially and took 272 men, women, and children from the university’s plantations in Maryland and sold them south to Louisiana. The university made about $3.3 million in today’s dollars from that sale.

Now Georgetown president John J. DeGioia says he will be offering a formal apology, “within the framework of the Catholic tradition,” which means that the school will be issuing an official apology and holding a mass of reconciliation in partnership with the Archdioscese of Washington.

In addition to the apology, Georgetown will be establishing an institute for the study of slavery and erecting a public memorial to the slaves forced to work for the university’s benefit.

On top of that, Georgetown University says it will henceforth be awarding preferential admissions status to the descendants of the slaves sold in 1838, and any other slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown.

According to the New York Times, this preferential status basically means that the descendants of slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown will be treated like legacies. The same type of preferential status is currently given to the children and grandchildren of Georgetown alumni. That sort of “legacy status” that grants preferential admission status to the descendants of alumni is common at most universities in the U.S., but it has never before been extended to benefit the descendants of slaves who were part of the universities.

According to the New York Times:

“Mr. DeGioa’s decision to offer an advantage in admissions to descendants, similar to that offered to the children and grandchildren of alumni, is unprecedented, historians say. The preference will be offered to the descendants of all the slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown, not just the men, women and children sold in 1838.”

The university is not currently offering scholarships for the descendants of slaves sold by the university.

Several U.S. universities, including Harvard and Brown, benefited from slavery and the slave trade. As part of its efforts to acknowledge and atone for its role in the slave trade, Georgetown has created a new research center called the Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies.

Additionally, two campus buildings that were named for the presidents responsible for deciding to sell 272 people have been renamed Isaac Hall, after one of the slaves sold in 1838, and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, after a slave and educator who founded a school for black girls in Washington in the 19th century.

“We know we’ve got work to do, and we’re going to take those steps to do so,” DeGioia said. “It needs to be a part of our living history.”