In one of the most active attempts by a U.S. university to address a tie to slavery, Georgetown community members convened with descendants of the 272 slaves sold in 1838 to formally apologize for the university’s role in slavery.
University officials formally apologized to the descendants in the “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” in Gaston Hall, the construction of which in 1877 was made possible by the sale of 272 slaves that saved the university from the threat of financial collapse.
The liturgy service included speakers from the university, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and descendants of individuals sold by Georgetown as slaves. After the liturgy, attendees convened in Dahlgren Quad for the rededication ceremony of two buildings. The halls were renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, after the first slave sold and the founder of a school for black girls in Washington, D.C.
The university relied financially on profits from a Maryland plantation until 1838, when it sold 272 slaves to raise funds necessary to keep the school open. Tuesday’s event constitutes a landmark development in the university’s efforts over the last several years to contend with this troubling past and the university’s participation in the institution of slavery.
Sandra Green Thomas, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, an advocacy organization of over 500 descendants, and a descendant of the Harris and Ware family lines, said the history of slavery is uniquely painful and pervasive.
“There is no comparison to be made between the enslaved of the Americas and any other group today or in history,” Thomas said. “Their pain was unparalleled. That pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States.”
University President John J. DeGioia convened the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation in 2015, seeking recommendations on how to acknowledge and recognize the university’s past involvement in slavery. The Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope and the dedication ceremony for Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall are the result of these recommendations.
In a speech delivered at the liturgy, DeGioia said the event honored the university’s commitment to accounting for its past.
“We cannot hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore this truth. Slavery remains the original evil of our republic. An evil our university was complicit in,” DeGioia said. “We do not seek to move on with this apology, but to move forward with open hearts to respond to urgent demands of justice that are still present in our time.”
Rev. Tim Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, delivered the service’s homily. He spoke to the religious motivations for the university’s atonement.
“Now, nearly 200 years later, we know we cannot heal from this tragic history alone,” Kesicki said. “Many have confessed and labored to atone for this sin, mostly within the confines of our own religious houses and apostolic works. Because we are profoundly sorry we stand now before God and before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved, and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”
Marsha Prewitt, a descendent of a slave who worked on Georgetown’s plantation but was not sold, also attended the service, saying she was full of awe.
“I think the homily expressed it best, that someone actually now understands or is beginning to understand what our relatives have gone through, what it’s like to have your family separated, to be beaten, to be enslaved,” Prewitt said in an interview with The Hoya. “And now you hear people say that slavery was ok because you got to eat and you had a place to live, but no, it will never ever be ok.”
History professor Adam Rothman, a member of Georgetown’s Slavery Reconciliation Working Group, led the Georgetown Slavery Archive’s historical research to track the descendants of the university’s slaves. He said the legacy of slaveholding is a pivotal part of Georgetown’s history.
“None of us would probably be here at Georgetown, Georgetown would not even exist, had it not been for this history of slavery and the sale in 1838,” Rothman said. “So we ought to just have a moral obligation to understand and remember that history, and to use it as an inspiration to strive toward justice today.”
Though the Slavery Reconciliation Working Group completed its report last November, the university is working toward more permanent structures to focus on responding to its history with slavery, according to Rothman.
“It’s a big step,” Prewitt said regarding the rededication of buildings in an interview with The Hoya. “And anything they do that adds on is also a step in the right direction. I don’t think there will ever be a way to repay fully but I think it’s an effort in the right direction.”
After the liturgy, the dedication and renaming of Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall was held in Dahlgren Quadrangle at noon. Members of the Georgetown community shared the stage with descendants of the slaves sold by Georgetown.
Karran Harper Royal, a descendant of one of the 272 slaves, spoke of moving forward while also remembering and honoring the past.
“[Georgetown] must be responsible for making sure that others understand what truly happened to bring this university to existence, and how we can all move forward together by continuing to educate students about the history with slavery,” Harper Royal said. “And these buildings will be from now on, forever, be a marker of that education.”
Jessica Tilson, another descendant, acknowledged Georgetown’s cruel legacy of slavery, but thanked the university for all it had done for her family since. Tilson, whose infant son died due to a rare disease, credits research conducted at the Georgetown University Medical Center with saving her other child’s life from the same disease.
“The same institution that sold my ancestors is the same institution that worked to save my son’s life and spared my daughter’s,” Tilson said. “I know that Isaac and my other ancestors wouldn’t want me to be angry. Because they know that what happened to them was horrible, but they know that their great-great-great-great-granddaughter benefited from their sale. I ask that you, Georgetown University, continue extending a helping hand.”
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