In 1838, a debt-ridden Jesuit university sold off 272 slaves in order to remain financially solvent. That institution, now known as Georgetown University, is seeking to make amends for its historical ties to slavery.

The New York Times reports that in a speech given on Thursday, Georgetown’s president John J. DeGioia outlined the university’s plans to do penance for its past sins, including a public apology, and preferential admissions for descendants of the slaves that were sold for profit.

John J. DeGioia, president, Georgetown University

John J. DeGioia, president, Georgetown University

 

“This community participated in the institution of slavery,” DeGioia said. “This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here, and we have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”

No longer wishing to hide from that ugly truth, Georgetown has taken steps to repent for its past including convening a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

A note on the group’s website introduction page reads, “Georgetown University has begun a sustained and long-term process to engage the historical role of our University in the institution of slavery and its legacies in our nation.”

The 272 slaves were sold for $500,000, or $3.3 million dollars by today’s standards.

Georgetown University  has a $1.45 billion endowment, and charges its 17,858 students $66,971 a year.

The university student body is 56.5 percent white and only 6 percent black, so just how many of these descendants will actually see a benefit from the preferential admissions remains to be seen at the university that only admits 17 percent of the students who apply.

For his part, DeGioia has started along the path to redemption by meeting with a genealogist and descendant of two of the sold slaves, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson.

While this may be seen as a step toward making reparations to the descendants of former Jesuit slaves, the preferential admissions offer does not include any offers of scholarships or tuition reduction, nor does there seem to be a plan in place to reach out to descendants of the sold slaves.

Still, Georgetown’s decision to give preferential admissions to descendants of slaves is more than what other universities in its same position have done including Harvard, Brown, and the University of Virginia, all of which have publicly acknowledged their past ties to slaves.

Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology said, “It goes farther than just about any institution. I think it’s to Georgetown’s credit. It’s taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take.”

Others think there is more work for Georgetown to do.

Karran Harper Royal is a descendant of slaves sold in 1838. She said that Georgetown should have offered scholarships to descendants. She also felt upset about not being formally invited to DeGioia’s speech.

“It has to go much farther,” Harper Royal said. “They are calling us family. Well, I’m from New Orleans and when we have a gathering, family is invited.”