In 1838, the priests at the helm of Georgetown University sold 272 slaves who worked on Jesuit plantations in southern Maryland, the proceeds of which were used to pay off the university’s debts. Now, nearly two centuries after they made that profit, university officials are trying to make amends to the families of those slaves.
The university announced Thursday that in an effort to “respond to its historical ties to the institution of slavery,” the descendants of those 272 slaves will receive admission to the university in the same way it treats other legacy applicants whose parents or siblings are alumni. According to The New York Times, the policy will apply to descendants of all the slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown, not just those sold in 1838. The university did not respond immediately to a request for clarification.
“The most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who will offer a formal apology detail the university’s plan at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
While this treatment of student descendants of slaves in admissions is unprecedented, the announcement follows similar news from elite universities like Brown and Harvard, which have also made efforts to publicly reckon with the racism that is cemented in their pasts. From removing a slaveholder’s mural from a dining hall to nixing the title of “housemaster,” each public atonement reveals the magnitude to which racism has always been entangled in America’s most sacred institutions—oftentimes, and in this case, as an explicit source of profit.