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Georgetown students vote to pay reparations to descendants of slaves sold by the school

April 12, 2019 at 11:00 am | News

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Staff Writer

April 12, 2019 at 11:00 am | News

Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Pic credit: Trover

Georgetown University might not have been able to stand the test of time if the Maryland Society of Jesuits, the body that managed the school, had not sold 272 slaves.

In 1838, two priests who served as presidents of Georgetown coordinated the sale of the 272 men, women and children enslaved by Maryland Jesuits.

The sale was worth $115,000 (more than $3 million today) and this was used to pay off the debt of the school and prevent it from going bankrupt.

But, according to The Washington Post, the move “broke apart families and sent many to Louisiana, where they laboured under dreadful conditions on cotton and sugar plantations.”

When the 1838 sale was brought to light in recent years, Georgetown University announced initiatives, including preference in admission to descendants and renaming two buildings and a memorial, but many said those were not enough.

Some Georgetown students are currently trying to institute a reparations fund for the descendants of the slaves who were sold. The student activists have pushed, through student government, a bill that would create a new $27.20 fee every semester for all Georgetown undergraduates, CNN reports.

The fee would go toward a reconciliation fund, which would be overseen by a board of students and descendants of the 272 slaves sold in 1838. Within a year, the students estimate that the fund would generate more than $400,000, which could be used to fund projects that directly benefit the about 4,000 descendants of the enslaved people the school sold.

On Thursday, the students voted by a large margin in favour of a referendum seeking the establishment of the fund. About 66 per cent of voting students were in favour of creating a “Reconciliation Contribution” that would begin in the fall 2020 semester, according to the
Georgetown University Student Association Election Commission.

The fee was opposed by 1,304. Turnout was 57.9 per cent, it added. The fee would, however, only be enacted if the Board of Trustees approved it because the whole move involves proposed changes to tuition.

Though school authorities say that the measure is not binding, student activists are hopeful that the university’s board of directors will discuss the issue at its spring meeting.

“As students at an elite institution, we recognize the great privileges we have been given, and wish to at least partially repay our debts to those families whose involuntary sacrifices made these privileges possible,” the sponsors wrote in the referendum cited by The Washington Post.

“As individuals with moral imagination, we choose to do more than simply recognize the past — we resolve to change our future.”

The $27.20-per-semester fee, if approved, would create one of the first reparations funds at a major U.S. institution, said CBS News. Critics of the proposal, however, argue that students should not have to pay for the institution’s failures, thus, the fee should be optional.

Others have wondered how the proposal was going to work and have asked questions about accountability and transparency. A group known as the GU272 Advocacy Team that pushed through the bill has been explaining how the school would identify the descendants.

It said: “the board of students and descendants would make this determination in the same way that the Georgetown University Admissions Office does, or the various descendant associations do.”

“In addition, the Georgetown Memory Project, which has done extensive genealogy research, would assist any applicant wishing to prove descendant status,” the CNN reports.

Meanwhile, a statement from the university said the vote would guide the school’s dialogue with the descendants of enslaved people, but did not indicate that the fee would be implemented.

“There are many approaches that enable our community to respond to the legacies of slavery,” Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, said in the statement.

“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.”

In recent years, universities across the U.S. have been acknowledging their ties to slavery and have made pledges to atone for their past. The effort by Georgetown to create a fund also comes as some Democratic presidential hopefuls including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker throw their weight behind reparations, an idea that is estimated to cost trillions of dollars.

In the journal Social Science Quarterly, a University of Connecticut researcher, Thomas Craemer estimated that it would cost between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion to give historical reparations.

The journal, cited by Newsweek, said Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865 when slavery was officially abolished.

He subsequently multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year to calculate the reparation figure.

“Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” Craemer said.

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