Descendants of Slaves Sold to Pay Georgetown Debt Want University to Set Up $1B Foundation
In 1838, two Jesuit priests, Rev. Thomas Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry, sold 272 slaves. The sale netted $115,000, or $3.3 million today, according to The Washington Post, and benefited Georgetown University, where Mulledy and McSherry served as presidents. It helped pay the school's debts. And it tore families apart, sending brothers and fathers and sisters and mothers as far as Louisiana, some 1,100 miles from the university's Washington, D.C. campus.
On Sept. 1, Georgetown formally apologized. John J. DeGioia, the university's president, said the school would give an admissions preference to descendants of slaves Maryland Jesuits owned, rename a pair of buildings and build a memorial. It was an attempt at reconciliation, spurred by a report from a panel of faculty, staff, students and alumni examining the school's role in the slave trade, and by escalating racial tensions nationwide.
Notably absent from the panel, though, were any of the nearly 600 Georgetown slave descendants who signed on to the school's apology. And last week, leaders of that group said the plan was a step in the right direction, but that the university could do more. They proposed a $1 billion foundation, and while they didn't specify its goals, they called for "a well-endowed foundation that would be of the highest caliber, a national leader in the issue of truth and reconciliation," according to The Washington Post. Via the paper:
"We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary,” Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant who helped develop the idea for the foundation, said in a statement Thursday.
"We viewed this as a prime opportunity for an institution that profited from slavery to join with the descendants of those enslaved to create a model for healing and redress in our nation," Joseph Stewart, a lead organizer of the group, said in a statement. "Yet we firmly believe in the old saying that, ‘Nothing about us, without us.'"
The group said the foundation should be a collaborative effort, with descendants, the university and the Jesuits managing the foundation and setting its specific goals. Funding, they said, would come from "10 to 15 institutions that benefited from long ties to slavery," The Washington Post reported.
DeGioia and Mike Gabriele, a spokesman for Maryland Province Jesuits, seemed open to the idea. DeGioia told a crowd of descendants last week he was thankful for the "opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges that I tried to speak about," while Gabriele said the Jesuits were "eager to engage," but noted that specific details in the descendants' proposal were "premature."
Predictably, public reaction has been mixed. Though the descendants group specifically noted the foundation should benefit "the common good" and not Georgetown's slave descendants alone, many comments on The Washington Post's article accused the group of asking too much or getting greedy. Many other comments were, unsurprisingly, flat-out racist, inadvertently reinforcing the need for further reconciliation measures.
"It appears there’s no statute of limitations on slavery, not even one that stops with the death of a slave master," wrote one commenter. "Thus the penalty can be passed on through any number of generations. If that’s the case, then what do today’s Egyptians owe today’s Jews for the pharaohs’ mistreatment of their ancestors? When I was a kid we called what’s going on here 'greed.'"
Is $1 billion too much? Maybe. But a better question might be whether or not it's enough.