Students voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum to establish a semesterly fee that would go toward a fund to benefit descendants of the GU272 on Thursday night with the highest turnout in recorded student government electoral history. The university is not obliged to enact the proposed fee.

With 66.1 percent of students voting “yes,” the $27.20 semesterly fee in student bills would be allocated to 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. Should Georgetown approve this policy, it would establish the first collegiate reconciliation fund in the country.

STUDENTS FOR GU272/FACEBOOK | The GU272 Advocacy released a statement that listed the names of the 272 enslaved individuals sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university.

Since October, the GU272 Advocacy Team, an on-campus student group that raises awareness for descendants, has worked with the Georgetown University Student Association to push for this referendum. The team has led an outreach campaign to educate students and encourage them to vote, through events such as an April 3 town hall featuring a panel of students both for and against the referendum.

Voter turnout in the election was 57.9 percent—beating the Feb. 2013 GUSA executive election which had 57 percent voter participation, according to GUSA archives. The high turnout will further the ongoing conversation surrounding descendant advocacy on campus, according to Shepard Thomas (COL ’20), a descendant and a member of the GU272 Advocacy Team.

“I’m definitely happy to see the response that we have, around 50 percent,” Thomas said. “I would just be happy to see this dialogue continue in the same direction.”

The university is not bound by the results of the April 11 referendum, according to university spokesperson Matt Hill. The university released a statement at 1 a.m. Friday acknowledging students’ voices but not specifying the university’s next steps.

“The university values the engagement of our students and appreciates that 3,845 students made their voices heard in yesterday’s election,” Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson wrote. “This student referendum provides valuable insight into student perspectives and will help guide our continued engagement with students, faculty and staff, members of the Descendant community, and the Society of Jesus.”

AMBER GILLETTE/THE HOYA | The GU272 referendum, which passed with 66 percent of students voting in favor of a reconciliation fee, awaits university approval.

If approved by the university, the referendum would create a reconciliation fund, which would be presided over by a board of trustees including five students and five descendants. The reconciliation fund would then distribute funds toward purposes to the direct benefit of descendants of the 272, according to the Students for GU272 Facebook page. Proposed projects include funding K-12 education, establishing college scholarships and purchasing school supplies.

Lee Baker, a descendant of Nace and Biby Butler, a married couple among the 272 enslaved people sold in 1838, reaffirmed the importance of the students’ activism.

“The students remembered, recognized, and re-ignited awareness about Descendants who literally made it possible for today’s Georgetown University,” Baker wrote in an email to The Hoya early Thursday evening. “Regardless of what happens, we will know that Georgetown University students practiced solidarity and decided to ensure that such an historic injustice has a permanent lens for awareness, analysis and action.”

GUSA President Norman Francis Jr. (COL ’20) and GUSA Vice President Aleida Olvera (COL ’20) supported yesterday’s result, urging the implementation of the referendum.

“The measures advanced in this referendum would put Georgetown on the right side of history and constitute the first reparations policy in the nation,” Francis and Olvera wrote. “The students of Georgetown have indicated their clear support for the University to take reparative action in order to address the outstanding moral debt incurred by the University’s decision to engage in and profit off slavery.”

Other universities, such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, have acknowledged their past ties to slavery, according to the Associated Press. However, Thursday’s referendum marked the first time a university has held a vote on the inclusion of a fee that would raise funds for descendants.

Though the vote has passed, it still must pass a vote of Georgetown’s board of directors, which is composed of 39 members who approve major university policy decisions. GUSA Senator Sam Dubke (SFS ’21) voted no in the Feb. 3 GUSA senate vote on whether or not to hold a referendum on a fee to benefit the descendants.

Dubke said though the vote has concluded, the debate about the proposed fee is ongoing.

“This fight isn’t over, because I don’t think that this election is over,” Dubke said in an interview with The Hoya. “There are individuals that are going to bring suits who made numerous complaints to the election commission.”

The referendum shared a ballot with GUSA’s April 11 senate election. The GUSA senate voted in favor of holding the universitywide referendum with a 20-4 vote Feb. 3.

GUSA elections have suffered declining turnout over the past few years. Recent GUSA executive elections in February saw the lowest voter turnout since the 2007 executive election, with 32 percent of the undergraduate student body casting votes. Overall voter turnout in the last senate election in October was 20.9 percent, according to the GUSA election commission’s Twitter account.

Previous referenda have never received votes from the majority of undergraduate students.

In February 2018, two referenda on a GUSA executive election ballot on senate restructuring and nondiscrimination saw a voter turnout of approximately 39 percent, according to GUSA archives. Voter turnout in a December 2016 referendum on establishing a smoke-free campus was 41 percent, and turnout in a February 2016 live registration referendum was 33 percent.

The university has not specified what actions it would take if the referendum were to pass.

“We’ll have to take that one step at a time,” University President John J. DeGioia said in a Thursday morning interview with The Hoya.

A Friday evening email from DeGioia to the university community acknowledged student support for the referendum, but also did not indicate if the university support the establishment of the reconciliation fee.

“With this strong indication from our students, I will engage key leaders in our Georgetown, Descendant, and Jesuit communities and our faculty, board, and student leadership to chart a path forward,” DeGioia wrote.

Despite yesterday’s historic vote, Georgetown will continue to grapple with its difficult legacy of slavery, according to Richard Cellini (COL ’84, LAW ’87). Cellini is the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, an independent nonprofit that has located 8,298 direct descendants of the GU272 since 2015.

“Whether this referendum passes or not, the moral stain on Georgetown and Jesuit leadership can never be erased unless Georgetown gives restitution to these families,” Cellini said in an interview with The Hoya early Thursday afternoon. “Even if it takes 50 years, or a 100 years, these issues are not going to go away.”

This article was updated April 12. 

16 Comments

  1. $27.20 per student per semester? This is an embarrassment to Georgetown University. A University with an endowment of $1.5 billion. Tuition is in the range of $50k per year for undergrads. So the undergraduate students believe a fee that amounts to less than 0.1% of their tuition makes a statement that they recognize the benefits they receive from the slaves that were sold? The amount is so insignificant it sends the message that the damage to these families was minimal at most. Dividing the approximate $135,000 per semester among the 8298 descendant of the 273 slave families would result in less than $20 per semester per descendant. Does anyone really think that will help these people? The amount needs to be a real amount, real to those paying it and real to those receiving it. What percentage of Georgetown undergrads actually pay their own tuition anyway?

  2. Gtown Alum says:

    The definition of privilege and entitlement is spending other people’s money without their consent. The student vote does exactly that and sends a message to the public that Georgetown seems to be filled with students who are happy to vote to spend their parents’ hard earned money and the money of the parents of future students’ parents in a similar manner. Georgetown was leading by example to make amends. This vote is a major step backwards for the reputation of the University and gave no consideration to those students (and their parents) who are financially challenged by attending Georgetown. You’ve also failed to take into consideration the support that the Georgetown Alumni provide to the school, without which the University would not be sustainable. You’ve created a tax without assessing what the actual need is and you have failed to provide a sound structure from which it can be administered with accountability. Congratulations! In trying to do something good, you have made Georgetown the poster child for White Privilege.

  3. Diana O'Connor says:

    If this gets approved… GU 272 will just ask for more and more money. And what exactly will they buy with it?

  4. Why burden students with further debt, or force parents who can pay to make even more sacrifice? I sure hope a wealthy alum – or groups of alums – open a trust rather than force extra cost to attend Georgetown.

  5. From out here in Texas, GU272 seems liking kicking slave descendants while they are down and tossing some pocket change at them….$27 per semester where tuition is $27,000 per semester is vicioulsy trivial.

  6. MARGARET CALHOUN HEMENWAY says:

    As a Georgetown alum, I’m amused by students voting to have parents spend more money than they’re already spending for bloated tuition costs. Why not poll those actually paying tuition? Slavery was abolished in the 19th century. There are no living slaves or children of slaves to which to provide reparations. Moreover, once the “feel good” knee-jerk instinct is put aside– the issue is a Gordian knot. During his ’08 primary, Obama noted he was “married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners.” If your family had slave-owners, should you get reparations? Consider this too: According to Ancestry.com, the average African American is 29 percent European. Should blacks with 29% European blood get reparations? What about whites with black blood?– should they be forced to pay reparations? How does one define “white” or “black”? Every Georgetown student should be made to read Keith Richburg’s superb book, “Out of America- a black man confronts Africa.” Richburg was the WashingtonPost’s correspondent in Nairobi. Anyone who’s been to Africa would realize that blacks here (however one defines the term) should be eternally grateful to be born American, even though their ancestors were brought here in chains. Blacks should ask themselves what country in Africa would they have liked their ancestors left behind in– some hellhole like Angola? This unhealthy modern-day fixation on sins against distant ancestors needs to end. Women in America won the right to vote only decades after black males gained that right. Should we all get reparations too? Rubbish!

    • If only you realized just how ignorant you sound. How dare you fix your face to assert that Blacks should basically be grateful to have been enslaved. It’s 2019 and it’s a shame that you and some others still walk around with the destructive, white-savior, mindset, like you did us a favor. Stop it. Were you against giving reparations to descendants of Japanese-Americans interned during WWII? What about the billions given to Native Americans? History cannot be undone, but amends can and should be made. Reparations is not just about slavery itself, it’s also about the lasting effects of it. The decades upon decades of discrimination, institutional racism, and disenfranchisement that followed.

    • If Margaret Calhoun Hemenway is the same person that criticizes gays, denounces Muslims, thinks Blacks are not as good as her, and a known Trump supporter, her comment is a non-factor. Please remove yourself and stay in your delusional corner.

    • Tony Eben '68 says:

      Well said.

  7. Tony Eben '68 says:

    What a joke!

  8. Illuminated Alum says:

    Way to vote to spend other people’s money. I pity the future of Georgetown with future slums who vote for dumb things like this. I hope the university knows better to institute this.

  9. Leon Speight says:

    $27.20. That’s not even a fancy meal for 1 in DC.

    A price point that makes privileged white liberals feel oh so good about themselves but without material inconvenience. Heavens forbid they stick to the actual number of slaves (272) and multiply that fee by 10. No, at that point the virtue signaling is too expensive.

  10. Leon Speight says:

    $27.20. That’s not even a nice meal for 1 in DC.

    The perfect price point for an absorbed privileged white liberal on campus. Enough to feel good about oneself and virtue signal about it, but not enough to actually be inconvenienced. Heavens forbid they actually stuck to a fee that matched the slaves ($272).

    Really a microcosm of what the Democratic party has sadly turned into. Pretending they care about the plight of minorities, doing everything they can to keep them on the figurative plantation.

  11. 57% turnout is certainly impressive and the margin suggests this referendum would’ve passed even with 100% turnout.

    Nonetheless, I’d be interested in seeing some demographic info on who actually voted on this referendum. For example, did international students have lower turnout rates and were they more or less likely to support this referendum? What about kids on financial aid?

    I know I never voted in any of the referendums or student Senate races during my four years on campus. There were certainly times when I didn’t even realize a vote was happening. Was that possible in this case?

    I guess what I want to see going forward is an effort by DeGioia to ensure that all segments of the Georgetown community really support this restitution fund. This issue is too symbolically important, and potentially controversial to pursue without near unanimous support. Personally I don’t support it, but if the roughly 2/3 support rate this referendum found is consistant with the rate of support across the vast majority of GU’s sub-communities, then fine….go ahead with it.

  12. Tony Eben '68 says:

    There are other schools Ty.

  13. Eriya Andersen says:

    That’s ridiculous! Thanks!
    I want to hear your opinion about something I read today, it’s a coolessay review here: https://usessay-writers.com/coolessay-net-review/
    Have you heard about this? I was so surprised.

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