Georgetown University: A Case for Reparations?

What does Georgetown owe to descendants of the 272 slaves sold by the Society of Jesus in the fall of 1838 to ensure the university's survival? An apology? A memorial? Scholarships? Or something else?

Those are among the questions raised by Saturday's NY Times article about the Georgetown community—administrators, professors, students and alumni—and its deepening efforts to reckon with the school's history.

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

Now, with racial protests roiling college campuses, an unusual collection of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists is trying to find out what happened to those 272 men, women and children. And they are confronting a particularly wrenching question: What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival?

The entire article is worth reading, most grippingly for what it reveals about Cornelius Hawkins, his family and their extraordinary faith. Georgetown historian Adam Rothman calls the episode, and the school's Jesuit archives, “a microcosm of the whole history of American slavery".

The sale marked the end of nearly two centuries of slaveowning by the Maryland Jesuits. Proceeds from the sale not only helped save Georgetown; they also helped finance Fordham.

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Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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