Amid recent debates about name changes at Yale and conversations at universities around the country on how best to acknowledge their part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Georgetown University announced last week that it would offer preferential admission to the descendants of 272 enslaved people that the university sold in the 1830s to pay off the university’s debt. The announcement sparked debate in the higher education and civil rights communities alike on what exactly is the most appropriate way to provide reparations in a university setting.
Here, contributors from UVenus offer their perspectives on the issue.
Denise Horn, Simmons College, Boston, MA, USA
In a recent interview on NPR, Georgetown’s president, John DeGioia noted that this move was to deal with two terrible wrongs: the sale of the slaves, and the breaking up of families. He noted: “We live today with the legacy of the failure to ameliorate the original evil of slavery in America. We need all of our institutions, but especially our universities, which are among the most stable and enduring institutions that we have, to accept responsibility right now. Unless we're able to reconcile ourselves to that history and ensure that we have a framework for full equity of all of our people, we will not be able to progress as a nation.”
I couldn’t agree more -- we need to recognize that our core institutions -- educational, economic, and civic -- have all been built upon slavery. Part of the legacy of slavery and institutional racism has been an unequal access to education in this country.
Universities have a special responsibility to unravel that history, make it known, but also to work towards making amends for it. Georgetown’s actions are a small yet important step in rectifying this.
Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
As Denise noted, it is important that colleges and universities respond to their history of colonialism, slavery, and systemic racism. Particular to the universities on the East Coast that benefited from the system of slavery, they need to respond in a more fulsome manner and do more than establish committees. Students who are ancestors of the slaves who “helped” build the institutions should have tuition waivers, and more.
Mary Churchill, Salem State University, Salem, MA, USA
I think that Georgetown’s actions are long overdue and represent a move in the right direction. However, one of the major challenges that all universities face is in thinking they know what is best for communities - local communities, global communities - and, in this case, the community of the descendants of former slaves. I was particularly struck by the comments from Mr. Joe Stewart, a man who identified as a descendant of one of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown. In an open campus meeting, Stewart stressed that descendants “must be involved in decision making on these initiatives moving forward. ‘Our attitude is nothing about us, without us,’ said Mr. Stewart, who was flanked by five other descendants.”
The historian, Craig Steven Wilder, also stressed that major work needs to be done to identify and contact the descendants of the slaves that helped build the wealth and success of Georgetown. I would go one step further and state that once these individuals are identified, Georgetown needs to ask them what can be done to begin to make reparations. Although we have lots of really smart people on our campuses, we cannot assume that we know what is best for any community - either on campus or off. We must meet people where they are. We must engage in dialogue.
“Nothing about us, without us.”
Gwendolyn Beetham, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ USA
Like others here, I believe that the universities that have made moves to address colonialism, slavery, and systemic racism are headed in the right direction. Slavery was the institution on which this country was founded, and all of the institutions in this country that benefited from slavery (which would be all of them), should be doing their part to make reparations.
That said, I share Mary’s concern that we are not doing enough to ask those most affected by slavery and its aftermath how best to go about the process. Further, I wonder about what these committees are able to achieve in terms of actual “reparations.” As Tressie McMillan Cottom recently stated, “Excavating this history and acknowledging how it shapes present inequalities is important…[i]t is not, however, reparations.” I’m not going to recount McMillan Cottom’s whole brilliant argument, which breaks down the three components of reparations -- acknowledgement, restitution, and closure -- to explain why Georgetown’s recent announcement was decidedly not reparations, but I can assure you she definitely makes the case. Go and read the whole thing here.
Readers, let us know what you think in the comments section below and join us on Twitter @UVenus.
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