Georgetown University apologises for its historical links to slavery

By Ian Simpson in Washington

Georgetown University sold slaves in the 19th century to help pay off its debts. Picture / AP
Georgetown University sold slaves in the 19th century to help pay off its debts. Picture / AP

Georgetown University has apologised for its historical links to slavery and said it would give an admissions edge to descendants of slaves whose sale in the 19th century helped pay off the US school's debts.

The Washington-based university, run by the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, will create an institute to study the history of slavery at the school. It will also rename two buildings that had honoured presidents who oversaw the 1838 sale of the 272 slaves, who had worked on church-affiliated plantations in Maryland.

"This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here," Georgetown President John DeGioia told an audience that included descendants of the slaves.

The university will hold a Mass of reconciliation "in which we will seek forgiveness for our participation in the institution of slavery, specifically for the sale of 272 children, women and men who we should regard as members of our community."

The steps go further than those taken by other U.S. universities that are confronting their past association with slavery, including Harvard, Brown, Princeton and the University of North Carolina.

But some criticised as inadequate the decision to give the descendants of the sold slaves the same admissions preference as the children of faculty, staff and alumni.

"We remain hopeful that we can forge a relationship with Georgetown that will lead to 'real' atonement," Karran Harper Royal, an organiser of a group of descendants, said in an email.

She added that the school should have offered scholarships to slaves' descendants and included them on the panel that made the recommendations.

The 18,000-student university will also create a memorial for slaves whose work benefited the school, including those sold to plantations in Louisiana to pay off Georgetown's debts.

Descendants of the slaves will be included in a group advising on the memorial.

The school will rename its Freedom Hall for Isaac, the slave whose name led the list of those to be sold, and Remembrance Hall for Anne Marie Becraft, a black educator. The buildings previously had been named for presidents who oversaw the 1838 sale.

Students at dozens of US universities protested last fall over the legacy of racism on campus. The protests led to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri and prompted many schools to review their diversity commitments.

"Georgetown, being a Catholic institution, really can't escape the moral problem of that history, because it's come to challenge its Catholic identity," said Craig Stephen Wilder, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

- Reuters

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