Georgetown University will give preferential admissions treatment to the descendants of the slaves it once owned, the school announced Thursday, as part of a program to atone for, among other things, having once sold 272 slaves to pay off debts.
Specifically, the Washington, DC school said it would give descendants "the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process."
It would appear to be the first time any school has taken such a step.
Georgetown also announced it will rename two buildings "Freedom" and "Remembrance"; build a memorial to the slaves from whom the school benefitted; establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies; and promote scholarship in the field of racial justice, among other initiatives.
The New York Times reported Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, will discuss the measures in a speech on Thursday afternoon.
The moves are a product of a working group convened one year ago to make recommendations on how to acknowledge and rectify the university’s role in perpetuating slavery. In advance of that announcement, DeGioia said the school had moments in its past that were "challenging, complex, and that run counter to the values that we seek to uphold."
The sale of the slaves, DeGioia said, "represent a difficult past that is contrary to the values and mission of our University," and promised to "move forward toward justice and truth," especially after a year "marked by moments of tragedy and violence fueled by racism and prejudice," a reference to the death of Freddie Gray in nearby Baltimore.
This April, the Times documented the school's attempts to grapple with its role in contributing to slavery. While other schools, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia, have acknowledged their use of slaves in the past, Georgetown's sale of 272 slaves was notable for its sheer size, historians said, and in other instances the school relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations.
“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of the working group, told the Times.
According to The Hoya, some historians believe Jesuits associated with Georgetown owned as many as 400 slaves, "not including the whole generations that lived in slavery under the Maryland Jesuits from its inception at the turn of the 18th century." They may have held slaves as late as the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863
"Georgetown’s Jesuits sold dozens of slaves in 1817, then again to Florissant, Mo., in 1835," the paper said. "They sent slaves to St. Louis and Kentucky in the years that followed. They manumitted slaves in southern Maryland before 1838. Slaves who were never sold lived on campus and in Maryland well after the sale."
So far, Georgetown has not announced whether it will go even further and create scholarships for the descendants of its slaves, something the working group recommended in its report on addressing the school's history with slavery.
"We have also returned frequently to the question of reparations," the group said. "While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of the enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the University."
The lack of that commitment prompted criticism from some on social media.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.