Georgetown must continue to focus attention on its history with slavery as it begins to reconcile with its past, according to a panel discussion on Georgetown’s slaveholding past in Lohrfink Auditorium on Wednesday.
John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, emphasized how Georgetown’s Jesuit identity and Catholic mission have impacted the way the university is confronting its past.
“We have a situation that is not unique but, I think, a response that is unique, and I think part of that uniqueness comes from who we are, what we believe and where we come from,” Carr said. “Great evil was done, but great good can come from that because of who we are, what we believe and how we act.”
Carr said the role of slavery in Georgetown’s success cannot be underestimated.
“I knew in a general way that the Jesuits owned slaves, but the more I found out about this the more appalling and personal it got,” Carr said in an interview with The Hoya. “I live, you study, at a place that was made possible in part by the sale of slaves.”
Carr praised the university’s leadership — particularly that of University President John J. DeGioia — in confronting a sensitive issue.
“This is a leader who steps up and faces responsibility, and I was very struck in his speech. He didn’t just talk about the past; he talked about the present and the future,” Carr said. “He talked about how slavery and its continuing legacy diminished the lives of people all around us.”
Associate professor of history Marcia Chatelain, who was a member of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation that recommended to DeGioia ways for Georgetown to reconcile with its history, said it is important to look back at Georgetown’s work on this issue in light of current events.
“What’s most important to understand about the working group isn’t the fact that we were tasked to tell a truth that many of us knew, but maybe we’re not ready to confront, but rather the context in which this conversation is happening,” Chatelain said.
Chatelain said the working group’s task is not only to find a possible remedy for past sins, but also to combat potential future discrimination in society.
“This working group isn’t just an opportunity for people to trace their individual family history,” Chatelain said. “This is a call to rethink all of the practices that we have with us today as an institution that rely and thrive on inequality.”
Carr said in an interview with The Hoya that the evolution of Catholic and Jesuit values can be a form of guidance for Georgetown to find ways in applying the recommendations made by the working group in its report.
“I think our faith, our Catholic identity and our Jesuit values help us understand what went wrong and how to set this right, and so it pushes us in a direction that considers the moral and ethical responsibilities we have beyond the historical or financial responsibilities,” Carr said.
James Benton, a Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation fellow for the Office of the President who is helping to organize the university’s efforts to reconcile its slaveholding past, said the university has been working with descendants of the 272 and community members to plan the next steps to address Georgetown’s history with slavery.
“We’ve been at work trying to figure out how to go forward with implementing the recommendations,” Benton said. “With the participation of descendants, of students, of the Jesuits, the university community, people of good will.”
Benton said the working group’s recommendations are just the beginning of Georgetown’s engagement with this issue.
“I don’t think people have begun to really grasp the significance of the working group report being a start rather than an endpoint,” Benton said. “We are at the very start of a very long process.”
According to Chatelain, the historical context of Georgetown in the 1800s is also important to consider, as Georgetown’s culture was deeply intertwined in the system of slavery that existed in the nation at the time.
“One does not wake up one day and imagine the possibility of human bondage. It has to be deeply engrained in the culture in which the possibility of selling human beings is reasonable and legible,” Chatelain said. “It was not only Jesuit slaveholding that formed this experience. It was individual students coming to university with slaves. It was a university contracting slave labor.”
Government professor Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., a member of the working group, said the failings of the Jesuits at the time reflect the failings of the United States as a whole in its support of the institution of slavery.
“I think about the Jesuits who made these decisions. They were very much a product of their time,” Carnes said. “You can say ‘how did this happen among Jesuits?’ but how did it happen in the United States?”
Carnes said this indifference was due in part by a lack of understanding of the principle of sin among Jesuits.
“There was a lack of moral vision,” Carnes said. “They were trapped both by the economy of their day and by the theological thinking of their times.”
Professor of theology emrita Diana L. Hayes said she was surprised at how Catholics, who emphasize the dignity of all human beings, could engage in the sale of persons.
“If we are all created in the image and likeness of God, why were some images seen as lesser than others?” Hayes said. “In the United States, the whole idea of race based on color came into existence as a result of the issue of slavery.”
In an interview with The Hoya, Carr said he hopes for Georgetown to be a role model for other universities in addressing similar issues.
“My hope is that we can show the way towards a real path to greater justice in part because we recognize how we failed, how we created injustice,” Carr said.
Daniella Montemarano (GRD ’18), who attended the event, said she is pleased that Georgetown is continuing to focus on its history with slavery.
“I’m extremely gratified at the continuing attention that’s paid to this issue by the leadership at this university as well as its community, its alumni, its scholars, its professors and its students,” Montemarano said.
Andrew Straky (COL ’20), who also attended the event, said he enjoyed how the panel highlighted the importance of continued dialogue on the issues of slavery, prejudice and discrimination.
“I think it’s really valuable that we are having these types of conversations. I think it’s admirable that the university is willing to look at, understand, comprehend and reconcile our past and the issues we’ve had with it,” Straky said.
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