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In 1838, the Maryland Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people to help pay off Georgetown University’s debts. Today, the university — like many other higher education institutions — is wrestling with that dark history.
And so are its students, who overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum to pay a per student, per semester reconciliation fee into a fund that would benefit the descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits.
What does the vote mean on a campus coming to terms with its past? We check in with a history professor and a student who’s a descendant herself.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
- Mélisande Short-Colomb Student, Georgetown University; Descendant, GU272
- Maurice Jackson Professor of History, Georgetown University; author of "Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism" (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press)
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In 1838, the Maryland Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people to plantations in Louisiana, a transaction that paid off Georgetown University's debts today. Georgetown is reckoning with that stain on its history, granting priority admission to descendants of the 272, renaming buildings named after university leaders who participated in the sale, issuing a formal apology for its complicity in slavery, and more. Last week, the student body voted overwhelmingly to approve a non-binding referendum to pay a per-student, per-semester reconciliation fee into a fund that would benefit the descendants of the people enslaved by the university.
NNAMDIWhat does the outcome of the vote mean for an institution seeking to take responsibility for its history? Joining me in studio is Melisande Short-Colomb. She is a student at Georgetown University and the descendant of the one of the 272 people enslaved, sold in the 1838 sale. Melisande, good to see you again.
MELISANDE SHORT-COLOMBIt's good to see you, too, Kojo. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIThank you for coming. Also joining us in the studio is Dr. Maurice Jackson. He's an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University. He was also a member of the university's Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which produced recommendations on how the university should respond to its history of slavery. Maurice, always a pleasure.
MAURICE JACKSONMy pleasure, indeed.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, are you a member of the Georgetown University community? Do you agree with the student vote? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. Do you think institutions should consider to take steps to reckon with and atone for their complicity in slavery? Melisande, what exactly did students vote to support last week?
SHORT-COLOMBLast week, Georgetown University students voted to support what we call a reconciliation fund to the tune of $27.20 per semester, which is 1/10th of 1 percent of the total tuition per semester at Georgetown University, of $27,722 per semester. So, this is 1/10th of 1 percent of the cost per semester of tuition at Georgetown. And the students voted to put this money into a fund to create an endowment that will last for the next 180 years. The same way that the endowment of enslaved people and people who were sold has lasted 180 years.
NNAMDIYou're one of the students leading the GU272 Advocacy Team, which developed the idea for the referendum in the first place. Take us through how and why you came up with the idea.
SHORT-COLOMBWell, I can't say that I am the leader of the team. I am a member of the team. And we have supported one another in goals to hold the university and the student body, hold a mirror up to how we memorialize, how we reflect, how we grow and continue to acknowledge the involuntary founders of Georgetown University. In 2016, President DeGioia pledged that Georgetown University would be active in reconciling its slave holding, human trafficking, negligent past. And the university meant every student and faculty member and graduate student and law school student and medical school student at Georgetown University.
NNAMDIWhat did the student body's decision mean to you, as a student, and as a descendant yourself?
SHORT-COLOMBFirst as a descendant and representative descendant student on Georgetown's campus, I feel a tremendous amount of pride in the students who took the initiative to be creative. In the absence of leadership and a clear plan of something to do, they created a plan. And then they brought that plan to fruition through hard work, education, engagement with students. Getting, creating a brand, putting it out there. And the students and the parents of these students, administrators and university should be so proud. And we, as Americans, should be proud of what these students have done. They made history.
NNAMDINot they. You are one of them, yourself. (laugh) Maurice Jackson, you were a member of the university's Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. You were tasked with studying the university's history and making recommendations for how it might respond to it today. Given that context, what was your reaction to the referendum?
JACKSONWell, my first reaction was thinking about Dr. King, and how he quoted Gandhi. And the quote was, “There go my people. I must catch them.” In this case, there go the students, and the university administration must catch up with them. I think they led by example. And I think they felt that the university was not moving fast enough. And young people are impatient. We were young, we were impatient. They have the right to be impatient. And they were impatient. Some people said, you know, they were trying to find the flaws in these things of the resolution. But that wasn't the important thing. The important thing was they took the initiative.
JACKSONAnd now, here's the thing, that this is being looked at all the world. Every newspaper. Melisande just told me that a newspaper in Malta has an article about it. The Guardian, you know, thousands of papers, the New York Times. and it's being discussed. And it's being discussed on campuses throughout the country. And it's being discussed. You know, when Ta-Nehisi Coates had the piece in The Atlantic, reparations, started a discussion. Now, the presidential candidates are discussing it. And, Kojo, you and I have been around long enough. We remember, as young people, there was something called the Republican New Africa. They had a program.
JACKSONRobert Brown had a program. In the '30s, the Communist Party had the Black Belt Theory. It's been around as long as we've existed. But now, it's coming to a crucial point, and it's being discussed in the elections and all these things. And Georgetown students are doing what students should do. They're making noise, and they're being heard.
NNAMDIWhat were the recommendations from the Working Group? Has the university taken any steps towards implementing those recommendations?
JACKSONWell, the first recommendation was that the names be changed. The university immediately took that to task. The recommendations were to give students a legacy status. That is being discussed. But now, legacy status, it sounds good, but it doesn't mean that much, always. For example, if you're from Maringouin, Louisiana, and if you've gotten a very poor education, as I did in the South, the chances are you're going to have the board schools and the grades to get into places like Georgetown are pretty dim. So, it sounds good, but it's not necessarily this. So, what Georgetown has to do is take this and adapt to it, so we can help those kids who may need additional help to get into places like Georgetown.
JACKSONOne of the most important things that the Working Group recommended was the establishment of an institute for the study of slavery. And this can be key. Because this can go back and take the recommendations of the committee, and the recommendations of Melisande's group, and look deep into the rest of slavery at Georgetown, in Washington, and have a policy. This, the university is a bit slow on it. And this is what we're looking at next. In addition to many other things, which I can talk about.
NNAMDII was going to ask you about the mood on campus. But let me hear from Tom in Fairfax, Virginia, who self-identifies as a Georgetown graduate. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMOh, yes. I'm a proud graduate of the law school of Georgetown. And I am so happy and proud of the Georgetown students for taking a lead on this issue. I'll be honest, you know, I'm not a big supporter of reparations, in general. That's another debate. But in this case, I think there's a definite, identifiable wrong, and it needs to be remedied. And I would call on my fellow graduates to kick in money, as well, that we have been beneficiaries of this tragedy, and therefore, we should, you know, send money and try to help this effort. And so I want to congratulate the students for taking the lead, and I hope the administration will follow.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom. Melisande, what's the mood like on campus? Have you been hearing from a lot of students about what they think?
SHORT-COLOMBWe have. Students are happy, and they're pleased, and congratulating one another. And everybody I see, I say, thank you for voting. And I am not so much invested, or was not invested so much in the outcome of the vote. Although we hope it would be yes, and it has been yes. It was the process. And sometimes, we forget that the goal is not the win or the loss. It is the work that goes into creating awareness. And no matter what the vote was, yes or no, we cannot deny that everybody is aware, everybody is happily aware right now. Some people aren't happy with the vote and may contest it and find issue with it.
SHORT-COLOMBBut in the absence of an idea, a thought, a plan, if the only thing that you can say is that what somebody else has thought of is wrong, and you don't have a reasonable plan for that or replacement, then okay. You disagree. You're entitled to that.
NNAMDIYou have chosen not to characterize the fee as reparations.
SHORT-COLOMBNo, it is not that.
JACKSONThere is no repair to a community, a people, a society in the midst of crumbling. So, in order for disenfranchised communities and people and culture to be repaired in America, we have to repair the other side of that, as well. Because I can't be whole when I have crumbling all around me. So, there has never been, when the Constitution was written, it was a flawed document. And we have had many amendments to the Constitution that have made us better because of the amendments to the Constitution, not the original document.
NNAMDIWell, Maurice Jackson, a lot of media outlets refer to the reconciliation fee -- if Georgetown implements it -- as the first example of a slavery reparations policy from a major American institution. And, as you mentioned, all of this is happening against the backdrop of a national conversation about reparations. Some Democratic hopefuls in particular are talking for the first time about reparations. Where does this fit into the conversation about reparations?
JACKSONWell, I think it fits in with the -- maybe the simple term we should use is a repertory of justice. It is a way that the students have put forth, no matter what you call it, it is an example of using some funds to help a people who've suffered because of people enslaved at Georgetown. So, we can, you know, figure on the terms. But this certainly does lead people to say: what can be done? Now, this comes in the midst of the Henry Louis Gates series on PBS on Reconstruction. I urge people to just pay attention. You know, this goes back even further. In 1762, a man named Anthony Benezet wrote a little pamphlet, “What Should Be Done with the Negroes.”
JACKSONAnd what he meant by that was if we free these Blacks who've been enslaved, what should we do to help them be able to survive in a culture that they know nothing of? They don't know to read and write. And he put forth examples. And Thomas Payne wrote something called “African Slavery in America” in 1775. And Frederick Douglass, in 1862, right around the same time that Lincoln issued a proclamation, made a speech to the Freidman's National Association around the same thing. We must find ways to help a people who have been so maltreated. So, this is a part of this discussion. And so the big thing is: how should we solve the problems of the day?
JACKSONAnd what should we do? Because, as Lyndon Johnson said at Howard University in 1965: “You can't ask the man with the mule to catch up with the man with the Caterpillar.” And if I say it then to most people they think I'm talking about a bug. But I'm talking about a big tractor. And so you have to give people some aid. You can't ask the person on the one-yard line to catch up with the person who was born on the 99-yard line. So, this is the beginning of a serious discussion about that.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Judd, in or near Washington. Judd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDDYeah, hi. Thanks, Kojo. You have a great show, as always. I think the students should be proud of themselves for bringing this to people's attention. But I have some concerns about the idea of how this money would be used. There are a lot of things about slavery that, if we could all makeover, we would do it, but we can't. But the people that need the help the most are the people who are worse off in the African American community. I doubt that you can really figure out a way to trace the families of all of these slaves, and figure out who are the ones that really need the help the most. I think that's something that they should try and do.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, allow me to put that in the form of a question. Because another descendant, Jessica Tilson, told Politico that what her town in Louisiana needs is -- quoting here -- “Something that Georgetown students cannot provide, and that's jobs. If implemented, this fund would bring in about $400,000 a year, which feels like a drop in the bucket in the light of the generations of wealth that slavery took from you and other descendants.” So, what does this money represent?
SHORT-COLOMBOkay. That's a very good question. This money does not provide the opportunity for the Caterpillar. What this fund will do is, on Georgetown's campus, create an economic base to build partnerships between students at Georgetown University and the descendant community. Reparations look like many things. Reparations are not rolling up to the front gate at a university and picking up your check for $27.20. What we hope to do is create partnerships with other communities, other descendants, micro-loans. We have elderly people in our community. And one of the most incredible things about the history of Georgetown's slaveholding is that there are more people in Maryland who are descendants of Jesuit and Georgetown slave holding than there are in Maringouin, Louisiana.
SHORT-COLOMBWe have large communities in Baltimore and Arundel County, St. Mary's County. There were no hierarchies in slavery. So, the people who were sold to Louisiana in 1838 came from families who remained enslaved by the Jesuits until 1865. So, there are 4,000 living descendants of Georgetown slave holding alive today who are clearly identified and connected to Jesuit and Georgetown slave holding.
NNAMDIMaurice Jackson, the University declined to send a representative for this discussion. But they did direct us to a statement acknowledging the results of the referendum from the University President, and in part, it reads -- quoting here -- “This moment raises complex issues that we are prepared to grapple with and embrace. Our students are bringing attention to deeply held convictions that we take very seriously. With this strong indication from our students, I will engage key leaders in our Georgetown descendent and Jesuit communities, and our faculty board and student leadership to chart a path forward.
NNAMDIMaurice, part of the Working Group report reads -- quoting here -- “While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slave holding and the sale of enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that the reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the university.” What would a meaningful financial commitment look like?
JACKSONWell, thank you Kojo. Just a couple of things to that. Jessica Tilson, who -- I visited the place in Maringouin, and I can tell you that jobs are needed. Here's the problem, is I just did a study for the City of Washington. I did it for the university, and I passed these, it's been very well-received. The problem -- and you've seen it -- and the problem is that one has to be skilled for certain jobs. And the problem in a place like Maringouin is that the schools are like the schools I went to in Alabama many years ago, that the students' report said that median income is $37,000. I don't believe it. I think it's much less than that. So, you have economic conditions that are just, quite frankly, backwards.
JACKSONAnd so what happened now, the university is meeting with the Jesuits and also the descendants to solve bigger problems, economic problems, because the Catholic Church has responsibilities. What can the university do? The university has to do what universities do best, and that is to teach. The university has the expertise to go into the communities and work with them. I put forth and propose -- and I hope the university takes this seriously -- is that there, you have some of the leading black Jesuit schools in the country. You have Xavier and Dillon, places like that, that Georgetown work with these schools to help train people.
JACKSONGeorgetown has one of the best medical schools in the country. And Xavier has the highest rate of black kids going to college, medical school, anywhere in the country. Georgetown has to partner with that school to aid students there. So, it all kind of things -- this costs money. Education costs money. And the university, I think people think that, all of a sudden, Georgetown is going put money on the table. It's not. I can tell you that. But what it can do is it can open up the school to better aid young kids. So, when the 8th, and 9th and 10th grade education and work with the Jesuits down there in schools, and create conditions where these kids can qualify to come to a place like Georgetown.
JACKSONAnd when you get here, it's like Everett Dirksen says, “Now you're talking about real money.”
NNAMDIMelisande, the referendum itself is non-binding. If the fee is to be implemented, it'll be through the University Administration and Board of Directors. What are your next steps?
SHORT-COLOMBWell, this is the end of the semester. And we have worked, as students, very, very hard over the last two semesters. As students, we finals coming up. Some of our students are going to be graduating. And for the next few weeks, we're going to be students, and we're going to finish up our school year. Our goal has been met. We began something, and we ended something, and we ended it in a really, really good place. And we are going to allow the process, while remaining active and involved, but we are now ready to partner and to begin this process that we started. And I'm sure there will be people who contest it along the way.
SHORT-COLOMBIt is non-binding. The Board of Directors could just say no. They might. And then we'll see what happens.
NNAMDIWell, we got a Tweet from someone who says: why are current students paying this debt? I'm sure Georgetown has a multibillion-dollar endowment. But as you said, Maurice Jackson, it's not just about putting money on the table. It's what are the most important resources that Georgetown and other universities have.
JACKSONI think so.
SHORT-COLOMBAnd I would like to say, too, that everything that the Jesuits and institutions have built over centuries as American institutions, the Jesuits sold people and enslaved people for the students.
NNAMDIAnd so, in the final analysis...
SHORT-COLOMBWhat is Georgetown in the absence of students? What is any college or institution or university in the absence of students?
NNAMDIMelisande Short-Colomb is a student at Georgetown University and a descendant of one of the 272 enslaved people sold in the 1838 sale. Good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
SHORT-COLOMBIt's good to see you, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIDr. Maurice Jackson is an Associate Professor of History of Georgetown University who's a member of the University's Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. Maurice, always a pleasure.
JACKSONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIOur show about the Georgetown vote was produced by Margaret Barthel, and our conversation about school safety was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is planning to add new tow lanes to the Capital Beltway on Interstate 270, a move that would affect 1,500 properties and result in the demolition of 24 homes and four businesses. Has highway widening helped ease traffic in our region? We'll take a deep dive into this plan and look at lessons learned from Northern Virginia. It all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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