In September 2014, a Georgetown junior published a column in The Hoya, the student newspaper, with the headline: “Georgetown, Financed by Slave Trading.” It unearthed a known but largely forgotten history: that the esteemed Jesuit university had saved itself from financial ruin in 1838 by selling 272 enslaved people. The sale had been orchestrated by one of the school’s presidents, Thomas Mulledy, himself a Jesuit priest, and the namesake of a residence hall that was at the time of the article undergoing renovations. The author, Matthew Quallen, urged the administration to strip Mulledy’s name from the building.
Quallen’s demand was effectively the first shot in what has become a four-and-a-half-year debate over how the school should atone for its slave-holding past. In September 2015, Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, impaneled a working group of academics, administrators, and students to study the issue. Two months later, black students staged a sit-in in his office successfully demanding the removal of names like Mulledy’s, which still graced several prominent buildings on campus. In 2016, the university agreed to give admissions preference to descendants of the 272 slaves; and the first two descendants arrived in the fall of 2016. College officials and the Jesuits held a mass of contrition in the spring of 2017 as a formal mea culpa for the sale.
But the perception has grown among some of the approximately 7,000 undergraduates that the university has moved too slowly. There is still no public marker of that dark chapter of Georgetown’s history. Most importantly, the university still has not addressed what many saw as the most crucial element in the working group’s report: financial compensation for the estimated 4,000 living descendants. In a word, reparations.
This week, Georgetown students are attempting to change that.
On April 11, undergraduates will vote on a referendum to create a $27.20 per semester student fee to create a fund that would benefit the descendants through education and health care initiatives in the Louisiana and Maryland locales where many of them still live. If the measure passes, and the university’s board of directors approves, it will mark the first time a major American institution has gone beyond the platitudes of “dialogue” and actually compensated the victims of slavery. And it comes at a moment, not entirely coincidentally, when the conversation about America’s racial reckoning has suddenly emerged as a subject many progressives are using to winnow the sprawling field of Democrats in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“What is happening right now on Georgetown’s campus is a reflection of a larger political climate, in which, I think, people are taking seriously what anti-racist action looks like,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies and a member of the president’s working group. “So it’s not just being nice to each other or saying racism is a bad thing. It’s about actually taking account and responsibility for the ways that these decisions and processes in the past shape contemporary life.”
And while the Georgetown student fee, which would raise about $400,000 in the first year, does not come close match the multi-billion-dollar price tags of the national reparations projects being discussed by presidential hopefuls, its mere existence indicates the degree to which an idea once thought to be impractically extreme has now moved into the mainstream. (On Monday, Senator Cory Booker introduced a bill to study racial reparations for African Americans, a companion proposal to one offered in the House by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.)
William Darity, Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University and one of the leading scholars on the economics of reparations, said he was “admiring” of the student efforts, while also pushing them to lay the groundwork for a nationwide effort that avoids “piecemeal” solutions. “We do need to move away from viewing this as a matter of individual guilt or individual responsibility that can be offset by individual payments, towards the recognition that this is a national responsibility and a national obligation that must be met by the federal government,” he said.
Indeed, the debate on campus mirrors some of the wider discussion about the nature of collective responsibility and whether there is such a thing as a statute of limitations on a crime of such magnitude. Like the American public at large, Georgetown students are far from unanimous in their support for the reparations fee. For one, it puts the burden of paying on students instead of the university. It raises the cost of attendance for families, many already on shoestring budgets. Some black students wonder why, if they too are descended from slaves, they should pay reparations they feel entitled to themselves.
“That’s the problem, people don’t want to be uncomfortable,” said Mélisande Short-Colomb, a sophomore and descendant who came to Georgetown at 63. “Everything happens for students here on campus. If you can receive a benefit, are you not capable of extending a hand in service? … Are you capable of washing feet?”
Like many other top-tier American colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Brown, and the University of Virginia, Georgetown’s ties to slavery pre-date the Union. And in Georgetown’s case, they persisted even after the sale splintered 40 families and shipped them to plantations in Maryland and Louisiana. Slaves continued to wash the clothes of white, wealthy students from landowning families until Emancipation. After the end of the Civil War, black people continued to work on campus as servants, and integration of the student body wouldn’t happen until the first black undergraduate was admitted in 1950. To this day, the colors worn by Georgetown’s basketball team, Blue and Gray, are an homage to Union and Confederate military uniforms.
“The story of Georgetown, the Jesuits, and slavery is such a vivid microcosm of the entire history of American slavery, going back to the early origins, colonial settlement, all the way through Emancipation and beyond,” said Adam Rothman, a professor of history, and the curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive. “You can tell the whole history of American slavery through this particular story.”
Rothman takes no public stance on the referendum so as not to intrude in an initiative that he sees as belonging to the students. But he does encourage them to know their history. “A partial truth is not the truth,” he told me on a recent morning in his office.
And that history continues to emerge in shocking ways.
Kuma Okoro, a junior studying international political economy, said he was moved to action when he learned that during construction of a residence hall in December 2014, workers had unearthed a human thigh bone in the site of a segregated cemetery that is known to have had remains of slaves and free blacks. The discovery was kept under wraps until August of last year. “For me, that was, like, crazy. But it also kind of showed that they don’t really care, right? The university’s goal is to keep the conversation controlled and keep everybody moving along.” He reached out to Short-Colomb, and within a month they were having meetings with other advocates of color in what would become the group Students for the GU272.
Students were already frustrated by the administration’s refusal to erect a memorial honoring the 272 slaves. A student proposal in September 2018 to construct a five-foot-tall, illuminated, marble and granite block, completely free of cost, to be placed near the residence hall built on the segregated cemetery, was politely rebuffed. The president’s office, a representative wrote in an email reviewed by POLITICO, was focused on “developing a framework for dialogue.” It was committed to “engaging these important topics.” “Patience and understanding” were appreciated.
Despite its inaction on the memorial proposal, the university has not totally ignored the recommendations that emerged from the working group’s 104-page report. Senior administrators are in the middle of tightly guarded talks with descendants, mediated by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to figure out the right steps for atonement. A grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation has funded faculty positions and fellowships to study slavery. Some professors have dedicated entire classes to discussing the conflict between the school’s founding principles, rooted in Catholic beliefs, and the moral stain that sustained it.
Nevertheless, the pace of atonement has led to impatience. “What they were doing was more like kiss and hug babies … to handle the media attention that was present at the time,” Shepard Thomas, a junior studying psychology and one of the first descendants to be admitted under the new admissions policy, told me. “Yeah, it’s important to rename buildings. [But] what’s legacy status if they can’t go to high school? You know, what are you promising at the end of the day?”
Last summer, Thomas, who comes from New Orleans, visited Maringouin, a small town outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose 1,000 residents are overwhelmingly descended from the 1838 sale. What he saw there—a town with a dearth of jobs, an absence of quality secondary schools, and a median income ($36,518) far below the national median ($57,617)—spurred him to action. (Not all of the descendants think Georgetown has the wherewithal to solve the real problems that beset places like Maringouin, Chatham, and Terrebonne Parish. Jessica Tilson, a descendant from Baton Rouge, recently told me: “What Maringouin needs is something Georgetown students can’t provide — and that’s jobs.”)
Last fall, instead of dwelling on what the university hadn’t done, a group of students gathered repeatedly in Short-Colomb’s dorm to brainstorm how they could empower the student body to do what the administration had declined to do. They studied the legal intricacies of nonprofits. They drafted a resolution to permit a vote on the fee and saw it through four sessions of debate in the student senate. Finally, on February 3, the resolution passed, setting up the vote for April 11.
The precedent-setting measure, which they have termed a “reconciliation fee,” would create a nonprofit governed by a board of five descendants and five students who would allocate the funds collected from the $27.20 fee assessed each semester and funnel them into projects that help cover descendant needs. For instance, there’s talk of providing eye exams free of cost and laying the groundwork for a scholarship foundation for descendants to attend college, not just Georgetown. But ultimately, students say, it is up to descendants to decide how best the money should be used.
The biggest and most popular argument in opposition to the referendum is not against reparations, but rather who should pay. Many students think that the university needs to make a full commitment to the report of the working group, which reads in part, “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.”
“When you target undergraduates, to be quite frank, you’re literally targeting the least financially successful subset of people who benefit from Georgetown,” said sophomore and student senator Sam Dubke, an international economics major.
Many return to the question of who bears the true responsibility for righting the wrong. “While we agree that the Georgetown of today would not exist if not for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838, current students are not to blame for the past sins of the institution, and a financial contribution cannot reconcile this past debt on behalf of the university,” Dubke and another student, Hayley Grande, wrote in an op-ed earlier this semester.
The problem, supporters of the fee say, is that the university doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with financial restitution—not even if it’s paid for by students. Two days before the senate resolution was passed, administrators filed into a room with students and launched a last-ditch effort to oppose their efforts. The fee, they said, was “just not appropriate” and outside the bounds of what the student government could do. Even federal research grants to the school could be threatened by this fee, officials said, according to an audio recording made by students in the room. An email statement from Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, to POLITICO reaffirmed the administration’s position that the vote is primarily symbolic: “Student referendums help to express important student perspectives but do not create university policy and are not binding on the university.”
This fight has turned personal for many, including Thomas. “At the end of the day, this is my history,” he said.
Each year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of Congress, has introduced a bill to form a commission that would study slavery in the colonies and early Union and recommend appropriate measures—but it has never been brought up for a vote. The explanation for its perennial failure might be as simple as the negligible amount of support for the idea of reparations in any form; at most 26 percent of Americans favor the idea and that level drops to 6 percent when polling white adults.
It was in the face of that disinterest, that in mid-2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a piece in The Atlantic called “The Case for Reparations.” In unsparing detail, Coates traced the crushing financial toll that slavery, and the pernicious segregation that followed, has wreaked on black citizens. “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe,” Coates wrote. “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
For all the attention Coates’ 15,000-word piece garnered, it did not entirely bring a reparations policy to the forefront. (Though its influence endures: The conservative columnist David Brooks last month changed his stance on the issue, citing Coates’ essay.) Indeed, the 2016 presidential contest, driven by Donald Trump’s obsession with illegal immigration, scarcely touched on how to move forward on racial injustice. That has changed dramatically this cycle. And this might be a function of a significant generational split: While reparations have net negative support of 39 percent among voters 45 and older, according to a 2018 poll, voters 45 and younger have a net positive of 2 percent, according to the left-leaning group Data for Progress.
In town halls and living rooms across the country, reparations has emerged alongside Medicare for all and climate change as a litmus test on the Democratic side. Almost every candidate has been asked if they support reparations.
The answer is overwhelmingly yes, though not everyone agrees on exactly how. Julián Castro, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris generally support the idea that any reckoning with slavery must include some form of restitution. Booker has embraced a “baby bonds” proposal, very similar to one put forth by Darity, the economist at Duke, and Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School, which creates a public trust fund that allows children to access monies — determined on a graduated scale based on their parents’ wealth position — at 18. (The measure, though not specifically targeted toward descendants of slaves, would effectively be aimed at closing the racial wealth gap.) Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, has been much slower to establish a position. After opposing it at first in 2016 and again this year, he announced April 5 he was throwing his support behind the Conyers bill.
The Conyers commission may be the first step. The reparations checks and formal apologies doled out in 1988 by Ronald Reagan to victims of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II were preceded by such a panel. (And it may not be that checks are the ideal solution — Darity and other scholars have argued that it could end up benefiting white business owners and doing little to ameliorate the racial wealth gap.)
But the one candidate who is furthest ahead on this issue is one you’ll rarely see on television. Democrat Marianne Williamson, a spiritual adviser and best-selling author whose campaign seeks to “heal the soul of America,” came out swinging with a $100 billion reparations plan that would create a board of “esteemed African American leaders” to disburse the money. After Darity called the dollar amount “paltry” in a New York Times article, she upped the ante to $200 to $500 billion.
“I don’t believe the average American is a racist,” Williamson told me over the phone. “I do believe the average American is vastly undereducated about the history. … When I actually draw the timeline — speak about it for five to 10 minutes — by the time I reach the end and say, ‘Therefore, reparations are only reasonable,’ I get a lot of affirmation.”
At Georgetown, plenty of question marks hang over the upcoming referendum. Campus sentiment seems to be leaning in favor of the fee. A poll conducted by The Hoya in early February, soon after the referendum was passed in the student senate, showed that only 16.3 percent of the 615 students surveyed were against the measure. Nevertheless, roughly as many students as were in favor of the fee were also undecided. Members of the advocacy team are confident in their campaigning since then, and students are banking on the message that a positive vote would send to the university’s board of directors, which has the final say. If the board strikes the proposal down, Okoro said, it will be “a horrible mistake … Also, I think it would be a statement of Georgetown’s values.”
“Without us there is no Georgetown,” he said. “Change in society always comes from activism from college students.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine