On April 11, the Georgetown University undergraduate student body overwhelmingly voted “yes” to the referendum, establishing a board of trustees to “directly better the lives of the descendants of the GU272,” the 272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university. Students would pay a semesterly fee of $27.20, which would then be collected and  distributed throughout the community of the descendants of the GU272. Shamefully, I was initially against this idea, seeing no benefit in its passage, and I even worked to ensure its defeat. However, on the nights leading up to the vote, I had a change of heart and mind and decided that the referendum had not only earned my vote, but required it.

As a conservative, there is an ideological case to be made against reparations in general. On the federal level, large government programs, often proposed by liberals, rarely accomplish their goal and often succumb to unforeseen consequences.

My original fear was that this reconciliation fee would eventually go awry and fail to help those whom it was designed to aid from the beginning. Georgetown has far fewer resources than the federal government, and if the government could not amend this centuries-old wound of slavery, how was Georgetown supposed to? The difference, as I would soon learn, is that this fund is not and should not be considered reparations.

We the students voted “yes” to a reconciliation fee whose charter explicitly details the form and function of the proposed GU272 reconciliation board of trustees. I was particularly struck by the potential projects discussed in the charter. The initiatives, ranging from “[providing] medical care” to “[supplementing] the education” of the descendant community struck me as necessary and worthy of students’ endorsement. This referendum is a genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement to try and reconcile with the university’s past of slavery.

Furthermore, I opposed the referendum based on moral beliefs. Why should I, an African American student myself, pay for the sins committed by the university centuries before my time here on the Hilltop? When I asked this question at the Georgetown University Student Association-sponsored town hall event,  I received several answers from those on the panel, but when Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a descendant of the GU272, stood up to speak, the room went silent.

It was then that she gave me a gift: the gift of understanding, of perspective, of recognizing what is right. As she addressed the crowd, I felt as if she was speaking directly to me when she said that the descendants of the GU272 are as much a part of Georgetown as are we, the students, ourselves. She spoke about how we have a moral obligation to try to reconcile our past history and that we owe a debt to those sold so many years ago, as they are the reason that we can call the Hilltop our home today. As beneficiaries of this university — regardless of political leanings, race or gender — we have a responsibility to “better the lives of the descendants of the GU272,” as they had, against their will, done for us. As a conservative African American student at Georgetown, I was no exception.

I now recognize my initial opposition was ill-founded and part of the overall problem. If we hope to address the issue of reconciliation the right way, we must all be a part of the solution. The first step in that solution can be recognized by holding the university accountable, as although the referendum has passed, more work is left to do. We must ensure the administration does not drag its feet on this issue and work towards realizing the ideas espoused in the charter. We must ensure the university begins to establish GU272 reconciliation board of trustees and carry out the rest of the proposals to which students voted “yes.” After all, the referendum wasn’t just an idea, or just a charter, or even just a plan. The GU272 referendum and its passage was the first step toward justice for those people wronged so many years ago.

We have the opportunity, as a community, to set an example nationwide on how to deal with the issue of reconciliation. I hope that all Hoyas will join me and many others in ensuring that the GU272 reconciliation board of trustees is erected and the proposals advocated for in the charter come to fruition. We must not tire, we must hold University President John J. DeGioia and the administration accountable, and we must carry out our duty and continue on the path for justice.

Javon A. Price is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

3 Comments

  1. Tony Eben '68 says:

    1838 was 181 years ago, almost two centuries. We have, or should have moved on. A position against the idea of reparations is reasonable both because of the remoteness of the alleged debt and because the vehicle of carrying out the objective is highly unlikely. Some refer to the old wound of slavery as continuing to fester. It is not. this wound was healed by 620,000 deaths, the Emancipation Proclamation, the outlawing of slavery in the United states, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act. Reconciliation fees are reparations make no mistake about that. Let the GU 272 descendants better their own lives just like any other responsible American.

  2. This is gold.

  3. Debra Tilson says:

    This is Debra Tilson, I am a descendant of not only the two-hundred and seventy-two (272) persons sold by the Jesuits to save Georgetown University. I am also the descendant of the persons not sold during the two-hundred and seventy-two (272) slave sell, but were still held in slavery on the Jesuits’ plantations, on plantations surrounding the Jesuits’ plantations, as well as, on plantations here in the South.

    Everyone has a right to his/her own decision/moral beliefs, but as an African-American/ Black what moral obligation do you owe as you maybe a descendant of persons sold to save if not Georgetown University, but some entity/family livelihood. Or your family was one of those that owned slaves, because there were many Blacks/Africans that owned slaves (i.e. Indians, Africans/Blacks, Whites) in this country and never was enslaved, if that is the case then I can see why you feel a moral obligation to right-a-wrong.

    Also, how do you know you are not an “unknown” descendant? Remember we were separated during the Transatlantic slave trade, the North – South slave trade and a product of “cattle breeding”….

    Being a conservative (Black, White, Red, Brown, etc.) is really not important to me, I live in a conservative state (Louisiana). Mr. Price I am a product of Maringouin, Louisiana, the very town that some of the two-hundred and seventy-two (272) persons sold by the Jesuits were sent, also my family not only owns a large portion of West Oak Plantation (the same plantation that some of the two-hundred and seventy-two (272) persons were sent), but were also born and/or raised there too – from 1838 to the present….

    As for the referendum, my question is why didn’t the students just protest as they did before and make the Jesuits step up to the plate? And once the Jesuits owned up to their moral obligation to right the wrong done to the ancestors and descendants of those held in slavery, then the students could have chipped in if so desired.

    Also, I do not understand why some descendants are acting so surprised that the Catholic church had a hand in slavery or that someone in his/her family was enslaved is confusing to me. From young many of us heard stories of someone/persons in the family being a slave, I guess only persons growing up in Maringouin, La. heard the stories of their enslaved relatives.

    My perspective on being “classified as a descendant of the GU272” is no different then (house and field “N….”) because being a descendant of the 272 is no different then being a descendant of a group that was not a part of the GU272. What makes the descendants of the GU272 different is that it was the largest lot of slaves sold at one time to one entity/person…. There are still many of my ancestors and yours that have/are not being recognized for their role in being sold as property, do we just leave them out? How many are “unknown descendants” of the GU272?

    Mr. Price, I hope you will provide me an opportunity to dialogue, for the record, the dialogue I am requesting with you (or any person) is not to change minds, but to provide another perspective other than the one you referenced in your article.

    Can you please provide some contact information (i.e. email, phone number). You and any other persons are welcome to email me at “[email protected]”….

    Thank you for the opportunity to express myself, look forward to dialoguing and I do apologize for the length….

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