With President John J. DeGioia’s remarks in Gaston Hall on Sept. 2, Georgetown is beginning to undertake a new phase of efforts to confront its history with one of America’s original sins: slavery. Some of the recommendations made by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation include providing an admissions advantage to those descendants of slaves who wish to attend Georgetown, making a formal apology during a Mass of Reconciliation, permanently renaming Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall to Isaac Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall respectively while establishing the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.
The steps taken by the university administration mark a significant phase in our school’s and nation’s history. It is critical to emphasize how these proposed reconciliation efforts with the slave trade are some of the most important actions the university has ever taken.
While the wounds can never be fully healed, what the university has done now is both a solid measure of progress and a firm foundation from which to work in the future.
With the recommendation to provide preferential admission to the descendants of the 272 slaves sold south to a plantation in Louisiana, Georgetown recognizes the incredible hardship and suffering these people were subjected to for the financial benefit of the university, the crucial part their role had in allowing this institution to stand today.
A key next step, recommended by the working group, this editorial board and various other editorial boards including that of The Washington Post and The New York Times, would be establishing a scholarship fund to assist descendants of those 272 slaves to attend this university. It would be an important long-term goal for the university to pursue, allowing such individuals to be fully supported in this community and be able to thrive in this academic environment and atmosphere.
In terms of raising the proper funds for such a project, if donors exist to contribute to a brand-new athletic center specifically for varsity athletes, then surely the proper funding can be solicited to provide for such individuals.
The establishment of a formal institute to study and research slavery and its modern repercussions is arguably the most important recommendation of all. Also admirable is its attempt to identify the remaining descendants of the 272 slaves, given the massive genealogical and historical undertaking this presents. The institute is a powerful sign that Georgetown is committed to its effort to explore slavery’s history and its effects on modern and contemporary issues.
It would be fruitful and effective for the institute to explore and emphasize solutions to modern human trafficking and slave labor both in the United States and abroad. Such a mission would further showcase Georgetown’s commitment to not only addressing its past, but for confronting tangible problems relating to modern-day slavery, with research aimed at realistic policy applications.
On the whole, in order to be a serious addition to our academic environment, the new institute should strive towards ameliorating the legacy of bondage by researching practical policies. With the promised establishment of an anti-slavery institution, Georgetown will effectively continue reconciling the past as well as confronting the issues surrounding slavery today.
Even with such a positive step forward in the process of reconciliation, it is worth mentioning key recommendations that should still be undertaken by the university. We will never be able to fully atone as a university for our involvement in the slave trade because without committing this unforgivable crime Georgetown probably would not exist. The actions of those Jesuits in the 19th century are intrinsic to the very survival and history of our school: No specific actions can ever wipe the slate clean.
While Georgetown’s actions alone cannot mend the entirety of our nation’s racial wounds, this does not mean we should also give up in future efforts and actions, nor does this mean that we should celebrate doing all we could have done. To rest on any laurels would be a mistake since there still exists a great deal of work to be done. We may take our accomplishments in stride, but we must continue working harder going forward.
In the overall process of reconciliation, there still exist pathways and opportunities for better, more constructive solutions. In the case of changing the name of Freedom Hall to Isaac Hall — the name of the first enslaved person named in the record of the sale — the university surely does not intend to cause offense with such a decision.
Yet when it comes to the naming of a building that has been the center of the original conversation and dialouge on slavery, it should not just be up to the administration to decide which names should grace the side of the building. It should be up to both the university and the descendants themselves to come to an agreement on Freedom Hall’s new name.
Evidence does exist to suggest that Isaac’s last name was believed to be Hawkins, and there exists a history of disrespect in not referring to African Americans by their surnames. It indicates a juvenilization of this man who was forced into bondage, and therefore it is worth considering changing that name in order to have the best solution. This is the place where involving the descendants in the conversation comes into play.
Those living today, whose ancestors directly contributed to our university’s survival without anything near proper recompense, are the most affected by current reconciliation efforts. Therefore, allowing such descendants to help decide the names for these two buildings is not only the right decision, it also would hardly be difficult. Members of the university administration, working group, archivists, genealogists and the like could meet with the descendants to decide on the most appropriate building names. Whether they maintain to keep the name or not is of little concern; what does matter is the involvment in this important process.
In recognizing the strides Georgetown is making to ensure the proper amends are made, it is also paramount to understand what this means for the world outside our front gates and for institutions in higher education dealing with histories that also involve participation in one of America’s original sins.
Georgetown has certainly set a precedent for how to confront and handle a history with slavery. The students, faculty, administrators, working group and others set realistic goals, made tangible progress toward them and now our community is prepared to become wholly better off with such future initiatives that will be felt both within and outside our campus boundaries.
From the addition of memorials to the establishment of a formal institute and everything in between, groundwork is being set for our school and community to acknowledge and further reconcile with this university’s past and the actions of the men who used to lead it. We have made incredible strides in this process and should be proud of both what has been accomplished and what we plan for in the future.
Georgetown’s current course of actions showcase exactly what an institution can accomplish when it comes to addressing issues at the very core of its history. Even with more work still needing to be done, our community can take pride knowing we are reaching milestones in reconciling with our past to confront the issues of today and the future.
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