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Math Geek Mom: Blue and Gray

Georgetown and slavery.

 

September 8, 2016
 

In Linear Algebra, in isolating a variable by adding and subtracting multiples of given rows of equations to and from others, the position of the isolated variable is described as a “pivot”  position. I found myself thinking of this recently when I recalled one decision that I made years ago that has turned out to be a pivotal decision in my life, one that now finds itself under a shadow cast by new information.

In my years at Georgetown, in the early 1980s, I saw that university as a place where learning was encouraged for its own sake. I was exposed to new ways to approach knowledge, as I delved into subjects that I had not previously known existed. In those years, I was part of a community of idealistic students, all searching to find ways to make the world a better place. I was not surprised when several chose volunteer experiences as their first step into life beyond graduation. It was just that kind of a place. Or so I thought.

Being a graduate of Georgetown opened doors for me along the way, giving me access to the Jesuits who ran the university where I earned my Ph.D. and helping me find my first tenure-track job at another Jesuit university. That last step landed me only miles from a major hospital just when I became too ill to function without surgery. There, I had access to administration that otherwise might have seen me as only “the new hire,” but, because of my Jesuit background, saw me as more, leading the college president to visit my hospital room to administer the sacrament of the “blessing of the sick,” once known as “last rites.” Of course, there was nothing “last” about it.

As I see much of my life as being made possible by the connections I made as a student at Georgetown, I am particularly disturbed to learn that the very existence of the university may be due to the suffering of enslaved people who were sold (isn’t that something we economists say about “things?”) in 1838 to assure that the college would survive financially. Never before has “white privilege,” always present in my life, had names and dates associated with it.

I should not have been so shocked to learn this, as the university colors, blue and gray, were chosen to represent the competing armies that camped close to its Washington, D.C. gates. In response, its administration has proposed a way to account for the pain it inflicted on those it enslaved. They propose that any descendants of those people who were sold be granted the same preferences for admission as are children of alumni. This is not a perfect solution, for several reasons.

 First, offering someone a position in a college class (actually a lottery ticket to a better life) cannot guarantee to make up for the pain caused to their ancestors. Further, since 1838, records may have been lost or destroyed, leaving the ability of applicants to prove that they are a descendant almost impossible. And my entrance into the world of adoption to bring home my daughter makes me aware that, under closed adoption, the usual practice at the time, it was often common for information to be hidden. Sometimes, at the request of those involved, it still is.

 Nobody asked me about this, but, out of respect for family members (including two godchildren) who trace some ancestry to Africa (and, perhaps, the slave trade) I am going to share some thoughts, and invite others to do the same. I suggest Georgetown open consideration to the many anonymous descendants of the people involved by adding two optional essays to the admissions application. The first could be a short statement explaining why it is possible that the applicant is a descendant of those affected. The second could be an essay discussing the importance of being inclusive and of working towards equity and inclusion in our society and on campus. This approach might help move the university in the direction of trying to honestly address decisions made long ago.    

Does anyone, especially graduates of Georgetown or other Jesuit universities, many of which grew from Georgetown, have additional thoughts on how to handle this aspect of what has been called “America’s original sin?”

    

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