On Thursday morning, the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation recommended that Georgetown formally apologize to the descendants of its former slaves and offer those descendants preference in admissions. In an afternoon event at Gaston Hall, President DeGioia and Working Group Chair Fr. David Collins presented the group’s report to the Georgetown community.
The many recommendations found in the 102-page document strike a balance of material investments and symbolic gestures. Along with the offering of preferred admissions status and an apology, the report calls on the University to establish an institute at Georgetown for the study of slavery, to permanently rename the two buildings formerly named for past Georgetown leaders associated with the slave trade, and to establish a living memorial on campus for the remembrance of the school’s slaves, among other actions.
“We’ve got to ensure that this history is alive. That it’s living here … We can’t be in denial about an important, painful, tragic portion of our history,” DeGioia said in an interview with the Voice.
The report left open for interpretation its language on the subject of direct financial restitution to the descendant community. In an interview, DeGioia made clear that there is no plan to create an additional scholarship for this group.
“Our policies on scholarships are guided by the University’s commitment to need-blind admissions to meeting full need. And these have been the guiding policies of the institution since 1978, and they will continue to be,” DeGioia said.
As for admissions policy, descendants of Georgetown’s slaves will be treated much in the same way as legacy applicants.
“We give care and attention to members of the Georgetown community – faculty, staff, alumni – who have an enduring relationship with the University. We will give that same care and attention to the children of the descendants,” DeGioia said.
“Descendants have to have an advantage. No ambiguity,” Collins said in an interview with the Voice.
During his remarks at the Gaston Hall assembly, DeGioia addressed the report’s recommendation for a formal apology, and outlined his plan to take such an action in a setting that reflects Georgetown’s Catholic identity.
“We will offer a Mass of reconciliation in which we will seek forgiveness for our participation in the institution of slavery,” DeGioia said.
As for the next of the recommendations, Collins spoke of the idea of establishing an institute for the study of slavery as reflecting Georgetown’s status as a place of scholarship.
“What are the resources that are intrinsic to a university as a university, that give us prompts as to how to deal with this archival material?” said Collins. “The idea of an institute emerged because it was the most natural way to do it.”
Further, Collins spoke of the need for a dedicated mechanism, such as this institute, for overseeing the continuation of the Working Group’s mission, given that the release of this report marked the end of its work.
“If we wanted this to be long term, it needed to have an institutional structure,” Collins said.
The report recommends that the former Mulledy and McSherry Halls be permanently renamed. The two campus buildings sparked student protest in November of 2015 due to their namesakes’ roles in orchestrating the 1838 sale of 272 slaves in the possession of the Maryland Society of Jesus to boost Georgetown’s finances. Following those protests, having previously directed the Working Group to assess these buildings’ names, DeGioia acted with the guidance of the Working Group to strip the names of Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry from the buildings.
They will now be named respectively for Isaac Hawkins, the first slave recorded on then-President of Georgetown College Thomas Mulledy’s terms for that 1838 sale to plantation owners in Louisiana, and Anne Marie Becraft, described in the report as “a free woman of color in a time of enslavement, a person with deep roots in the local community of Georgetown, a trailblazing educator, and a Catholic religious sister in the nineteenth century.”
“[Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft] do not represent an erasure of history,” said Collins during the Working Group assembly. “They help us tell our history better.”
Finally, the report spoke of a memorial to remember the experiences and contributions of slaves at Georgetown.
“[The memorial] needs to be more than just a static presence, and that’s going to take work. We want it to be a living part of this place,” DeGioia said.
While this report marks the completion of the Working Group’s activities, DeGioia made clear that the effort to address Georgetown’s past is far from complete.