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Georgetown University plans steps to atone for slave past

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Nearly two centuries after Georgetown University profited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said Wednesday.

Georgetown's president, John J. DeGioia, also plans to offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery, and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution, including those who were sold in 1838 to help keep the university afloat.

In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.

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So far, DeGioia's plan does not include a provision for offering scholarships to descendants, a possibility that was raised by a university committee whose recommendations were released Thursday. The committee, however, stopped short of calling on the university to provide such financial assistance, as well as admissions preference.

DeGioia's decision to offer an advantage in admissions to descendants, similar to that offered to the children and grandchildren of alumni, is unprecedented, historians say. The preference will be offered to the descendants of all the slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown, not just the men, women, and children sold in 1838.

More than a dozen universities — including Brown, Harvard, and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But Craig Steven Wilder and Alfred L. Brophy, two historians who have studied universities and slavery, said they knew of none that had offered preferential status in admissions to the descendants of slaves.

Wilder, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said DeGioia's plans to address Georgetown's history go beyond any initiatives enacted by a university in the past 10 years.

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"It goes farther than just about any institution," he said. "I think it's to Georgetown's credit. It's taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take."

But whether the initiatives result in meaningful change remains to be seen, he said. Wilder cautioned that the significance of the preferential status in admissions would rest heavily on the degree to which Georgetown invested in outreach to descendants, including identifying them, making sure they are aware of the benefit's existence, and actively recruiting them to the university.

"The question of how effective or meaningful this is going to be will only be answered over time," Wilder said.

DeGioia's plan, which builds on the recommendations of the committee that he convened last year, represents the university's first systematic effort to address its roots in slavery. Georgetown, which was founded and run by Jesuit priests in 1789, relied on the Jesuit plantations in Maryland — and the sale of produce and slaves — to finance its operations.

The 1838 sale, worth about $3.3 million in today's dollars, was organized by two of Georgetown's early presidents, both Jesuits. A portion of the profit, about $500,000, was used to help pay off Georgetown's debts at a time when the college was struggling financially. The slaves were uprooted from the Maryland plantations and shipped to estates in Louisiana.

DeGioia said he planned to apologize for the wrongs of the past "within the framework of the Catholic tradition," by offering what he described as a Mass of reconciliation in partnership with the Jesuit leadership in the United States and the Archdiocese of Washington.

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"We know we've got work to do, and we're going to take those steps to do so," DeGioia said in an interview Wednesday.

The two buildings being renamed originally paid tribute to the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the 1838 sale. Now one will be called Isaac Hall to commemorate the life of Isaac, one of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838, and the other Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of a 19th-century educator who founded a school for black girls in Washington.

"It needs to be a part of our living history," DeGioia said.