Black History Month calls for racial justice action

February 2, 2024

Graphic by Rachel Zhang

While Black History Month is a time to reflect on the stories and progress of Black people at Georgetown, this reflection cannot occur without meaningful action. Each February should remind Georgetown of its responsibilities to interrogate the university’s racist past and work toward becoming an explicitly antiracist institution. Rather than simply celebrating progress, administrators should take this opportunity to assess, improve, and reinvigorate ongoing racial justice initiatives.

Georgetown often highlights the legacy of Patrick Healy (president from 1873–1882), celebrated as the first Black president of a major American university. For example, diversity initiatives like the Patrick Healy Endowed Scholarship and Patrick Healy Graduate Fellowship offer financial support to outstanding Black students under the auspices of Healy’s name. But for Georgetown to retroactively point to Healy as an example of Black excellence and racial progress obscures several facts. First, the university did not publicly recognize Healy’s Black ancestry until the 1960s and 1970s, nearly 100 years after his presidency. Second, Healy was only able to serve as president because he was white passing. 

After Healy’s tenure, Georgetown continued to exclude Black people from the university and did not admit its first Black student until 1953. Thus, rather than tokenize Healy, the university should address institutional barriers that have barred Black students from the university for decades. Especially in light of the overruling of affirmative action, the university should make concerted efforts to include Black students in the admissions process through targeted recruitment and other “race-blind” initiatives that increase diverse enrollment.

As part of reparations, Georgetown should provide full scholarships to descendants of the GU272+. Under the current admissions process, descendants are offered the equivalent of “legacy” status but are not guaranteed additional financial aid due to their descendant status. Though descendants are eligible for need-based financial aid like all Georgetown students, this aid is not always sufficient to cover the costs of attending the university.

Georgetown must also reconsider the way it engages in reparations through the Reconciliation Fund. The $400,000 annual fund, raised via alumni donations, supports community-based projects that benefit descendant communities of the GU272+. Though it was established in 2020, the first round of funding was not allocated until fall 2022, and no additional funding has been announced. Many descendants have taken issue with the fact that the Reconciliation Fund does not offer direct financial reparations and have expressed that $400,000 is insufficient to support thousands of living descendants.

$400,000 is the hypothetical sum of a mandatory $27.20 activities fee for all undergraduates proposed by a 2019 GUSA referendum. The activities fee was not meant to reflect the actual cost of enslavement, but was rather a symbolic reference to the 272 enslaved persons sold by Georgetown in 1838. 

Future discussions about reparations must continue to include the voices of living descendants and address their current needs, not just a symbolic value. In addition, the university should reconsider implementing the mandatory activities fee that would require all students to participate in financial reparations. Students should be reminded that Georgetown’s existence was only made possible by the labor and sale of enslaved Black people.

Georgetown must take seriously the act of commemorating its Black history on campus. At the same time, the university must begin tearing down its monuments to enslavement. Since renaming Isaac Hawkins Hall in 2017, the university has stalled in its efforts to memorialize the GU272+. The only other on-campus reminder of the GU272+ is a slideshow in Leavey Center that scrolls through a list of names and ages of the enslaved individuals sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. As part of reconciliation efforts, Georgetown must heed calls from descendants for on-campus memorialization of their ancestors. 

Georgetown risks causing further harm by continuing to pursue new building projects without considering the history of the land. For example, the ICC, Reiss, and Arrupe Hall were constructed atop a cemetery that held the graves of both enslaved and free people. The university must properly memorialize its Black history in order to remind students of their responsibility to engage in reconciliation work.

The university is taking an important step by, starting in the 2024–25 academic year, requiring all undergraduates to take a one-credit seminar called “Race, Justice, Power.” The course will hopefully increase students’ understanding of Georgetown’s history with enslavement and racism. The university must ensure, however, that this course does not cause further harm to Black students by training professors to be antiracist while mediating these discussions and inviting feedback from students. 

As a predominantly white institution, Georgetown must address the ways that racism persists on its campus today. In particular, the university must take threats of hate crimes and speech on campus seriously. The university must commit to becoming an antiracist institution that delivers justice for its Black students. Georgetown should ensure that reporting mechanisms like those offered by the Office for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Affirmative Action are timely, transparent, and reliable. When a crisis does occur, the university should be willing and ready to respond to students’ needs, rather than forcing them to demand action from the school. 

The university should also bolster institutional support for Black students, ensuring that they are well-equipped with consistent funding and staff. The multitude of Black student organizations on campus serve as a place for students to build community and share experiences. The university should exercise its oversight to see that these clubs receive adequate funding and are supported by knowledgeable faculty advisors. Georgetown should also ensure that resources like the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access and Black Survivors Coalition are adequately staffed and funded.  

The university should not only act when others demand change. If Georgetown is truly committed to the work of reconciliation, it must continue to make progress on commemoration projects, even when there is no external pressure to do so. This Black History Month, self-congratulations and celebrations are not enough—Georgetown’s Black students, and those impacted by its racist past, deserve real, substantive, and continuous action.

Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!

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