A group of descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown University in 1838 was unsatisfied with the unprecedented steps the college took to accommodate them, and demanded partnership in a $1 billion foundation vaguely aimed at producing “reconciliation.”
In 1838, amid dire financial trouble, Georgetown University sold off 272 slaves for $115,000 (over $3 million in today’s dollars). Last week, the university’s president, John DeGioia, announced Georgetown would offer special admissions preference for any of the descendants of those slaves, and he promised to build an on-campus memorial to the slaves and renamed a building after one of them. He also promised a public apology for the university’s role in the slave trade.
And he promised to look into establishing scholarships named for the people who were enslaved, and said school officials would continue to meet with descendants in their homes to discuss future steps.
“It goes farther than just about any institution,” Craig Steven Wilder, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times. “I think it’s to Georgetown’s credit. It’s taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take.” You might think this would be enough.
If so, you’d be entirely wrong.
“We firmly believe in the old saying that, ‘Nothing about us, without us,'” declared Joseph Stewart, the lead organizer of the GU272 group of slave descendants. Leaders of the group (about 600 strong) said they asked to be included in a Georgetown University panel and were not.
“We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary,” Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant who helped develop the idea for a foundation, said in a statement on Thursday.
Stewart, the group’s leader, and a former chairman of the board at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, told The Washington Post that the group is planning to launch “a well-endowed foundation that would be of the highest caliber, a national leader in the issue of truth and reconciliation.”
The descendants proposed $1 billion for the foundation, and announced that they had already raised $115,000 in seed money, an amount roughly equivalent to the price of the slaves Georgetown sold in 1838.
“The foundation can only be a reality if we can establish a partnership with Georgetown University,” Stewart declared. “The foundation is our vision of an opportunity for us to have a partnership with Georgetown University that can take the history that we all now know about and turn it into a greater common ground for Georgetown, the Jesuits, the Catholic Church, and humans overall.”
A foundation with such vague goals and such exorbitant funding could exist for decades, thereby perpetuating the grievance into the future.
Next Page: Why this is a huge insult to Georgetown University.
One major problem with Stewart’s complaint and the group’s declaration that “nothing about us, without us” applies in this situation is the fact that several descendants were in the audience at DeGioia’s announcement last week. “Thank you for your trust and confidence in this institution that it might be able to be the kind of resource that you just described,” the president said to the descendants at the event. “The opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges that I tried to speak about and that you just spoke of, this is at the heart of what we were trying to be as a university.”
This almost pathetically deferential olive branch (DeGioia suggested that he was unable to even speak about the challenges) seems to have been returned with scorn. While Stewart praised this unprecedented action, he essentially dismissed it as totally insufficient.
“I want to commend them for that. But we want to work with them on a greater vision that’s not dependent on the day-to-day educational mission of Georgetown, a separate foundation that we all have a role in,” Stewart told the Post. “We can take that, use it in a positive way to do much better for all of God’s wonderful humanity.”
In other words, Stewart appreciates the extreme lengths to which Georgetown is willing to go to honor the GU272. He just wants them to go about ten thousand times further and to set up a permanent institution outside the university, because the university clearly cannot be trusted to make proper reparations.
But Stewart also wants it both ways — he wants to extort Georgetown for the good of humanity. “Our vision is not about reparations. It’s not about getting anything that just benefits the descendants. It’s about having an opportunity to have a common good.”
Who exactly would be running this foundation, however? Would it not be those very descendants? It seems that affirmative action, renaming buildings, a memorial, and a public apology are not enough. Stewart wants a separate perpetual institution to give these descendants jobs for life. Georgetown has already done so much — why can’t it foot the bill? He’s only asking for $1 billion.