Georgetown will offer admissions preferences to descendants of slaves

In an acknowledgement of its past association with the slave trade, Georgetown University will offer the descendants of nearly 300 slaves who were sold to pay off the school's debts in 1838 preferences in the admissions process.


In 1838, the school sold 272 slaves who were working on plantations in southern Maryland to pay down its debts.

Now, the school said it will give the descendants of those slaves "the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community" when they apply. That means that the applicants will "receive an extra look" and that their relationship to the university will be considered.

Georgetown President John DeGioia officially recognized the school's past Thursday afternoon in a press conference.

"We must acknowledge that Georgetown participated in the institution of slavery. There were slaves here on the hilltop until emancipation in 1862."

Georgetown will also have a Mass of Reconciliation where it will apologize for its history.

"We cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history," DeGioia said at the press conference.

Last September, DeGioia created a 16-member Working Group of Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation consisting of students, staff and alumni to make recommendationson how the school can amend its historical ties to slavery.

To help find and connect with the descendants, the group created The Georgetown Slavery Archive, which provides genealogical information and other materials about slavery at the university. It also has documents that show the names, ages and relationships of the 272 slaves sold in 1838.

Some descendants have reached out to the school and have provided additional information, according to Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown who is also a member of the working group.

A group of descendants who attended the press conference, addressed DeGioia and asked the school to seek more of their input as it moves forward on how to rectify its past.

DeGioia has visited with descendants in recent months, and said that the school will support reconnecting the descendants of the slaves who were split up when they were sold.

"We have very good records in our archives, more than 100 boxes," he said.

Maxine Crump, whose great, great grandfather was among those sold in 1838, told CNN's Brooke Baldwin that she was overcome when she heard about the news.

"I was driving at the time, and I felt like my car was going but I had stopped. It just took over my whole being. It was a door that opened that I never expected would have opened in my life.

"Restorative justice" has sometimes been abused as a means to extract money from government or private institutions for what are considered past "sins." 

But in this case, the "justice" involved is legitimate.  The preferences would not go to the descendants of all slaves – just those directly affected by the sale.  This is not a case where 21st-century morals are being transplanted back to 1838 in order to judge our ancestors.  By that time, a majority of Americans realized that slavery was evil – if perhaps necessary for the time being.  The selling of the 300 slaves was a concisous act that, while not a civil crime, could certainly be considered a moral one even in 1838.

Also, the proposal is fair to the rest of applicants to the school in that it doesn't guarantee admission only similar treatment to that given by legacy applicants who have had a family member attend the school in the past.

But there are problems with instituting this policy, not the least of which is determining who is a "descendant" of a slave sold by the school.  They claim to have good records, and that may be true.  But slave owners were notoriously lax in recordkeeping, so following a direct line from slave to modern-day ancestor is extremely difficult.  The school has also not indicated if only a "direct descendent" will be considered a direct line through the mother or the father or whether more tenuous family connections will also be considered.

But overall, this is a reasonable proposal in line with the American notion of justice.

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