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In Retrospect: Georgetown and its History of Slavery

Melisande Short Colomb (Meli) talking about the sale of 272 slaves by Georgetown in 1838.

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service. More importantly, 2019 is also the 400 year anniversary of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Georgetown University is an institution whose survival depended on the exploitation of forced migration and enslavement, where the consequences of that history are still being felt today. In this series, we explore what it means to have a legacy deeply entangled with slavery and how modern educational institutions, faculties, staff, and students interpret that history today. 

Melisande Short Colomb, called Meli by those closest to her, is a 65-year-old undergraduate student at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. However, age is not the only thing that sets her apart from her peers. In 2016, she discovered that she is among more than three thousand descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown University to the American South in 1838. 

Over a phone conversation with Meli, she imparted to us the story of her journey to Georgetown and her experiences as a student. After several news articles under her name, a theatrical script in progress, a TED talk, and countless public appearances, Meli continues to reflect deeply upon the events that led her to study at Georgetown. She recounted: “When the offer came [to enroll at Georgetown]…it was like, Oh my god, you people enslaved and sold my family. Why should I trust anything you say? And what are you offering?” 

A School Built on Slavery

The enslavement of Meli’s and other descendants’ ancestors was well-known to Georgetown’s historians but not to the majority of students, staff, faculty, and outsiders until recent years. 

Georgetown’s founders were Jesuits priests, members of the Society of Jesus under the Catholic Church. When Jesuits moved from Europe to Maryland beginning in 1634, they were among the biggest tobacco planters in the colony. Their most valuable assets were the hundreds of enslaved people who sustained their plantations and whose labors funded the creation of Georgetown University. 

Slaveholding was a way for Jesuits to affirm their property rights and religious superiority. According to historian Thomas Murphy S.J., owning slaves was  “the assertion of their own right and the right of Catholic layman in the colony to be accorded the full rights of English subjects”. Jesuits also prided themselves over the spreading of Catholicism and allowing their slaves to be baptized, unlike Protestants who often denied their slaves this right.  While there seems to be no apparent way to reconcile slavery and Jesuit values, vast numbers of 19th century Jesuits in Maryland believed slaveholding brought them closer to God.

When Georgetown University fell into debt in 1838 the administration’s solution was to sell 272 slaves to the South, a transaction that ensured the continued existence of the University. The people sold were themselves Jesuits, mostly baptized by Father Thomas Mulledy, who served as the President of Georgetown from 1829 to 1837, and his successor Father William McSherry. In 1838, it was the same two men who sold the people they baptized, believing that owning slaves was no longer profitable for them. When it was most convenient, a religious duty translated into a financial liability, and enslaved people became a dispensable commodity. 

Uncovering the history

Maurice Jackson, a Professor of African American history at Georgetown University currently teaching at the Georgetown Qatar campus, gave us some insight into the recent discovery of this history. 

In 2015, Georgetown renovated and renamed two of its buildings, originally named after Mulledy and McSherry to honor them for keeping the University open in times of debt. John DeGoia, the 48th president of Georgetown University was wary of renaming the buildings without recognition of their deeply problematic history. DeGoia called together a working group of selected faculty members, which Jackson was a part of, to conduct a historical study that would eventually be called the GU Memory Project.

By the time this article is published, the project has publicized findings on the genealogy and conditions of 8905 direct descendants of the 272 slaves. The project sought to locate living descendants from all over the United States, and Jackson himself was part of a traveling group with the GU272 committee. He first met Meli during a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, when she invited the GU272 group home for dinner. 

Jackson was also the first person Meli discussed with about enrolling in Georgetown. In 2016, President DeGoia offered the descendants community legacy status to study at Georgetown, along with any possible assistance for admitted students. “It felt like it was the right thing to do,” Meli described when asked about her decision to enroll at age 62. While initially skeptical about whether Georgetown will be a safe space for descendants, Meli saw her enrollment as an opportunity to be a leader and affect change. As an undergraduate, she is active in both the GU Memory Committee and the GU272 Student Initiative. 

Since 2015, as the GU Memory Project educates the public on its findings, students at Georgetown D.C. Campus have taken into their own hands to reconcile this legacy of slavery The GU272 Student Initiative’s aim is to ensure the proper memorialization of Georgetown’s slavery history and the reparations for descendants of the GU272. 

The initiative’s major project is a working group on memorialization, comprised of student activists, alumni, and faculty. Meli, who is a part of the initiative, recounted the students’ fear that the issue of slavery would be swept “under the table, into the drawer to be forgotten for another few hundred years”. This sentiment motivated the working group to ensure their demands were acknowledged.

The groundbreaking work of this group has resulted in a student-run, university-wide referendum on reparation payment for the descendants. In April 2019, Georgetown made national news in the United States after 66.1% of its students voted to pay reparations for descendants of the 272 slaves sold by the university in 1838. This decision, determined entirely independent of the university’s administration, proposes a $27.2 fee for students to pay each semester as part of their tuition to reparate GU272 descendants. This fee would increase each consecutive year based on inflation, with the aim to raise around $400,000 per year to projects directly benefiting the descendants community. 

Unfinished Stories

American news largely stopped their coverage of this story after the referendum. Few know that inside Georgetown’s campus, student activist groups are still struggling to gain the University’s acceptance of the referendum results.

On October 29th, 2019, in an internal email to the student body, the Georgetown Office of the President announced the launch of a reconciliation initiative that does not include a semesterly reparation payment by students. The initiative looks like an exact copy of the student referendum, with the promise of raising $400,000 per year beginning in the Fall of 2020, matching the student referendum’s timeline. The difference, however, would be funding, which will be raised by the Georgetown administration instead, making any student contribution non-binding.

The GU272 Advocacy Team’s response was of disappointment. In a response published on Facebook, student advocates criticized DeGoia’s statement as it “delegitimizes and undermines student effort and the democratic vote of the undergraduate student body.” DeGoia’s statement, according to the GU272 Advocacy Team, was made with little direct input from the descendants and student leaders and placed no accountability measure on the usage of any funds raised. The response further stressed the financial responsibility of students and the need to establish better connections between students and descendants. 

As Georgetown begins to reconcile with its history of slavery, the current debate centers on who should pay the reparation. Professor Jackson is vocal about his support for the community taking responsibility for Georgetown’s past mistakes. He questioned, “Would you have gotten as far as you did if not for the sins of your fathers?” To him, reparations are especially important in a predominantly white university that exists because of slavery and in a country where African Americans are suffering economically and socially because of the legacy of slavery. Meli echoes this sentiment, recounting the sacrifices of the 272 people, the majority of whom were under 18, who were sold in sacrifice for the community’s greater good. 

Georgetown University’s struggle with its legacy of slavery is a part of numerous recent controversies for American universities’ tied to Atlantic slavery, including Harvard, Princeton, William & Mary, and Rutgers University. Historian Craig Steven Wilder estimated that most American universities founded before the American Civil War have derived funding from slavery. The majority of institutions have been reluctant to examine this past. Regardless, the pertinence of racial conflicts in the United States is forcing these issues to be confronted. Nevertheless, slavery is not only an American phenomenon. In the case of Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), Jackson stressed that the Doha setting can promote unique conversations about slavery and its legacy. Not only did GU-Q inherit its main campus’ legacy with the Atlantic slave trade, but it has also inherited the Middle East’s history of the Arab slave trade and contemporary critiques of labor abuses under the Kafala system. The conversation about these overlapping legacies, however, has yet to happen on the GU-Q campus and awaits more exploration. 

The existence of any branch of Georgetown University today remains contingent upon the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838. In Qatar, while Jesuit religious values are imported directly from the Washington D.C. campus to students orientation and lessons, the legacy of slavery is still shrowded in quietism. This is an incomplete conversation that compels all affiliates of Georgetown to take part in and find a good treatment for this legacy.

In a continuation of this series, we will continue to follow the progress of the GU272 organization’s fight for student-led reparation payments and investigate the slavery history of other Education City universities. We hope you continue to accompany use on this historically complex and problematic investigation.

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