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Dorothy A. Brown: Georgetown needed money and sold 272 slaves as "property" to enable it to keep the doors open

Millions need to be set aside by Georgetown University in a fund for the descendants of the slaves sold, she says

Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

As a Georgetown University alumna (L’83), law professor, and a recovering administrator, I have followed the recent developments at Georgetown with a special interest. The university would likely not still be in existence without the sale of slaves from Jesuit plantations in 1838.

As an alumna, I question whether I would have attended Georgetown if I had known. I also wonder what I owe the descendants of the 272 slaves as a result of receiving my law degree from Georgetown.

Dorothy A. Brown
Dorothy A. Brown

The law professor part of me is used to the “let’s appoint a committee” to study something as a way to maintain the status quo. The committee structure delays any action because there will be lots of time spent in meetings before a report can be prepared with recommendations that will then have to be studied by administrators. On the other hand, more than one mind focused on these issues is more likely to lead to better results. Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation has, however, followed a predictable path.

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia’s announced last Thursday the steps he was taking to “atone” for the fact that 272 slaves were sold to ensure Georgetown’s continued financial stability and viability. The president selected which working group recommendations to adopt and announced a future apology, the renaming of buildings, an institute to study slavery, and preferential treatment in admissions for descendants of the 272 slaves, among other things. These are all welcome steps. Acknowledging that Georgetown “participated in the institution of slavery” is also important, but none of these activities are particularly transformative.

DeGioia, who established the working group, excluded descendants of the 272 slaves. The descendants, as non-university employees or students, would have made this working group more likely to result in recommendations designed to dismantle the status quo. In addition, the working group never described the level of financial commitment the university should make. Here’s how the working group report put it: “We are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the university.” How much is “meaningful”? Academic speak is a thing of beauty.

The recovering administrator part of me asks the question: Why was the president standing up there alone? The board of directors of the university should have been standing by his side. A university president can only go so far without the support of their board. One recommendation of the working group was to seek the board’s involvement in this effort, which only serves to further highlight their absence.

There are three important steps Georgetown should take:

The sale of the 272 slaves at its core was a financial decision. Georgetown needed money and sold “property” to enable it to pay debts and keep the doors open. That is why at least $3.3 million (the inflation adjusted amount of the 1838 sale proceeds in today’s dollars) needs to be set aside by Georgetown University in a fund administered by a court-appointed official to oversee the requests of the descendants of the 272 sold slaves for how they want Georgetown to atone to them. Georgetown has a $1.45 billion endowment and can well afford this. If the argument is made that this fund would be inconsistent with the purposes of Georgetown University, then the university must raise the money for a separate entity created for that purpose.

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Next, Georgetown needs to lead the nation in becoming an inclusive environment for all descendants of African slaves – whether they are staff, students or faculty. It is the least Georgetown could do to actually atone for selling slaves to Louisiana slave owners, given that slavery in the Deep South was notoriously brutal.

Third, Georgetown needs to lead a national conversation about the lingering vestiges of slavery. Just because your ancestors were not slave owners, or immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, you have still benefited from slavery – if you live in America.

For example, today’s policing that disproportionately targets blacks is an outgrowth of slave patrols that “were formed to control and monitor runaway slaves and free blacks, the precursor and foundation of the modern police department,” according to Dr. Yesenia Barragan, a historian of race and slavery. Whites who escape the attention of the police benefit because of slavery’s long reach.

Every Georgetown student (current and past) and employee has benefited from slavery because the proceeds of the sale allowed Georgetown to remain in existence. Georgetown is not unique in this respect, but has a unique opportunity to make this painful reality clear.

Slavery’s roots run deep and are an intricate part of 21st century America, including our institutions of higher learning. I hope that my alma mater is up to the very daunting task that lies ahead.