Shared from the 9/2/2016 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Apology for profiting from slavery

Georgetown University also says it will offer the descendants special consideration in admissions.

Georgetown University plans to offer an apology for its participation in the institution of slavery, officials said, following the release of a report Thursday that scrutinized the sale of hundreds of Jesuit-owned slaves in the early 19th century for the benefit of the Catholic school.

In addition, the highly selective university in the nation’s capital plans to give the descendants of slaves owned by Maryland Jesuits aboost in admissions, treating applicants from that community the same as it would those who are children of faculty, staff and alumni. And it will name a university residence hall after one of the slaves, a man named Isaac. He was 65 years old in 1838 when he and 271 other slaves were sold and shipped to a Louisiana plantation.

Those are among several steps Georgetown is taking in response to a report from a panel of faculty, staff, students and alumni that examined the university’s ties to slavery, including the 1838 sale. That transaction helped pay off debt at the Jesuit school then known as Georgetown College.

Two Jesuit priests who took turns as president of Georgetown in those years, the Rev. Thomas Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, orchestrated the 1838 sale, for a price of $115,000, or $3.3 million today. The sale, which stirred debate at the time within the Society of Jesus, led to the shipment of slaves to Louisiana plantations, separating families. The episode has been known to scholars for decades. But it has drawn new attention in the last year amid an intensive dialogue about race relations on college campuses across the country.

The panel, which Georgetown President John DeGioia convened a year ago, studied the sale and other issues connected to Georgetown and slavery. It said in its report to DeGioia that “a formal, spoken apology” would be appropriate “because its absence rings so loudly.”

“The University, despite the many ways that it has invested resources over the past half century to heal the wounds of racial injustice, has not made such an apology,” the report continued. “While there can be empty apologies, words of apology, genuinely expressed, make a difference in the quest for reconciliation.”

The report and the university’s response drew emotional reactions from people who trace their lineage to those sold in 1838. Jessica Tilson, 34, a student at southern University in Louisiana, said she was especially moved by the university’s decision to dedicate one of its buildings to the memory of Isaac. Tilson said she is descended from him.

Tilson was driving her mother to work Thursday when she got an email from Georgetown with news of the report. She said she burst into tears, pulled into a gas station parking lot and told her mother. They cried together, and talked about how they would tell Tilson’s 80-year-old grandfather.

With the report, Georgetown joins a growing number of prominent universities that are giving new scrutiny to their various connections to the institution of slavery in America from colonial times through the Civil War.

Brown University acknowledged its close ties to the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade in a groundbreaking 2006 report. The University of Virginia’s governing board voted in 2007 to express regret for the use of slaves at the school Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819, a decade after the slave-owning Founding Father ended his second term as president.

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