Everyone has a past, and the Jesuits of Georgetown University are no exception. What most prefer is not to see their dark episodes replayed on the front page. Yet there was my alma mater on page one of the New York Times two weeks ago, the headline reading: “Georgetown confronts its role in the nation’s slave trade.”
Many of us who spent four years or more on campus in northwest Washington, D.C., gained some knowledge of the plantation past of the Maryland Jesuits. The Times story jarred in telling about the sale of 272 slaves who worked on the plantations to help the financially troubled Georgetown pay off its debts. One university historian told the Times, “The university owes its existence to this history.”
As slaveholders, the Jesuits viewed themselves as more humane. There are cultural complexities in play, the plantations part of Catholics surviving as outsiders, slavery present in all 13 colonies, then states, at one time or another. Other universities, including Harvard and Columbia, have recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade.
The Jesuits negotiated conditions for the 1838 sale. Families would be kept together. Slaves would be permitted to practice their Catholicism. At the same time, the Jesuits knew the slaves would be sent to the Deep South, where they would face far more brutal treatment. In the end, the conditions in the deal were not met.
Georgetown is looking to atone. As campus protests gained momentum last fall, the school removed from buildings the names of Jesuits involved in the sale. Richard Cellini, a high-tech executive and alumnus, launched the Georgetown Memory Project, seeking to trace the slaves and their descendents, perhaps as many as 15,000, according to statistical modeling.
Already some have been located. As it is, Georgetown began its own examination two decades ago, the Georgetown Plantation Project of the American Studies program gathering and piecing together the many details of the story. This now has evolved into the Georgetown University Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. The information is available at the website, Georgetown Slavery Archive.
What will the university do? The larger concept of reparations for slavery has been much discussed in recent years. The idea runs into complications due to the lack of good information. For Georgetown, there is more precision about those harmed, the Jesuits recording the names of the sold slaves. It follows that the school should make available to descendents through scholarships or otherwise what it so richly has and the sale preserved, a superb education.
A memorial on campus with the names of the 272 would reflect the embrace of the university.
Yet there is something more in all of this than Georgetown accounting for its past. Read the Times and other stories, and you are reminded of the unimaginable devastation of slavery.
From W.E.B. Du Bois to Kenneth Clark to William Julius Wilson, historians, sociologists and psychologists have explained the ruin of black lives, no room for marriage or family, the black man particularly vulnerable because he was seen as a potential threat to power. Assert himself, and the greater likelihood is, he would be lynched. Clark wrote famously about a “tangle of pathology” afflicting black lives.
If black women and men have proved resilient, the heavy scaring of such racism and economic deprivation still matters. That isn’t to deny, either, the obvious progress, or the many individual success stories. Yet when slavery ended, Jim Crow soon entered the scene, bringing, essentially, another century of segregation and degradation.
The 1960s brought powerful civil rights legislation — and a caution from Lyndon Johnson in his speech at Howard University in June 1965: “Freedom is not enough.” Actually, he echoed Abraham Lincoln who worried that little would change in the wake of the Civil War, blacks facing familiar obstacles and cruelties.
Perhaps many are convinced that we have done enough to address the wreckage of slavery. Then there is how blacks gained a foothold in the labor market just as wages started to stagnate, missing the postwar boom that generated broad wealth families could pass to the next generation.
Today, many school systems are segregated. So are neighborhoods. Consider that one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime, going from the incarceration of slavery to another kind.
Yes, take personal responsibility, but these realities point to something else. The desired assimilation hasn’t taken place. If Georgetown must atone for its sale of slaves, so the country must confront the remaining grim legacy of slavery.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or emailed at email@example.com.