In June, an African-American employee at Yale University shattered a stained glass window that depicted slavery. Charges against the employee were eventually dropped, but the dark past of universities and their affiliations with slavery were brought back into an increasingly relevant conversation of ongoing racism in the United States. Traces of slavery and racism are becoming more apparent on campuses across the country in architecture, art and building names.
At Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, a movement rose to highlight the sale of 272 slaves. It resulted in the removal of the names of two college presidents, Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry, from all school buildings, as they were deemed responsible for this transaction.
John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown, announced additional steps that will be taken to help mend the mistakes of the past. This includes giving preferential status in admission to descendants of the 272 slaves, as well as an apology, a memorial and a mass of reconciliation with national Jesuit leadership.
Georgetown’s idea of reconciliation and apology to the families of the 272 slaves it sold to pay off its financial debt in 1838 is arrogant and solely focused on the image of the university. Its efforts do not seem directed toward the benefit of the slave descendants. Issuing an apology and giving preferential status in admissions to the university is disrespectful to the families of the 272 slaves. The emotional suffering that this incident caused has an infinite value that could never be mended. It is reported that the monetary value of the transaction would be equivalent to about $3.3 million today.
Why would DeGioia and the rest of Georgetown administration staff assume that these people would want to attend a university that sold their ancestors for financial reasons? Instead of giving preferential status to these descendants, a privilege usually bestowed upon children of alums, why not give scholarships to students if they choose to attend Georgetown? The university should instead create a scholarship fund that consists of $3.3 million in grants. This would be the first step toward helping the descendants go to school where they feel comfortable doing so.
Giving a leg up to descendants does not account for the necessary reparations needed to make amends. Taking action to improve lives is a better apology than removing names from buildings or giving the possibility of acceptance to the institution.
A committee looked into Georgetown’s connections to slavery and the results were worse than expected. The committee’s findings revealed that the institution depended financially on its slave transactions ever since its inception in 1789. Findings also showed that slaves were not only found on the Jesuit plantations, but had also been recruited to work for students and school elites. The selling of the 272 slaves helped fund much of Georgetown’s current architecture.
Walking across many historical college campuses can serve as a reminder of the country’s shocking past. Slavery takes up an enormous part of U.S. history. Erasing these signs, whether found in paintings or symbols, is essential to making African-American students comfortable in a setting that boasts an absolutely embarrassing history of racism and prejudice.
Protests from students and staff, the breaking of a window or a trending news story should not be the reason an institution finally takes responsibility for its mistakes. The leaders of these universities should be proactive in owning up to the past and making a difference in the future. It is disappointing to see that many universities are only open to change when they see possible backlash that can result in negative attention.
There is no real way to mend the pain of the past, but the situation presents the educational sector with a great opportunity to help build a future of inclusion, diversity and opportunity.