Read: The case for reparations
But while students by and large supported the measure, some questioned whether it should fall to the student body to make amends for the institution’s past blunders. “We are just one part of the over-100,000-member Georgetown community,” says Sam Dubke, a sophomore,* referring to the school’s alumni, “and frankly, we are the members of that community who have the least financial means.” The tax would raise an estimated $400,000 in its first year, a considerable chunk of money, but less so in the context of an institution sitting on nearly $2 billion in the bank, one that, in 2016, paid the school’s president $1,436,230 and the head men’s-basketball coach $3,967,988. (The team finished the year with its worst record since the 1970s.)
The Georgetown students behind the effort reject the premise that they themselves are absolved from any financial commitment. “I don’t think the university paying the fee would address what the referendum seeks to address,” says Hannah Michael, a sophomore who helped conceive the idea of a fund. “Students voted yes because they believe they have a financial obligation to commit to reconciliation with descendants.”
“Since 2015, Georgetown has been working to address its historical relationship to slavery and will continue to do so,” said Matt Hill, a Georgetown spokesman, when I asked why the school doesn’t just pay for the fund itself. The school’s president visited Maringouin in 2016, he added, and since then, “Georgetown has met with many descendants and heard many important ideas about how we might move forward together.”
But the fact that students may be ahead of the school in paying reparations is evidence of just how little the university has done to make amends for its misdeeds. And such inaction isn’t just a Georgetown quirk. Virtually all the antebellum colleges were active participants in chattel slavery—at Princeton, for example, prospective students would arrive on campus to be first greeted at the president’s doorstep by his slave. As the MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder writes in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education “never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
Many of these colleges—Harvard, Brown, Rutgers, the University of Virginia, William & Mary—have begun to grapple with their slaveholding past, convening symposia, erecting memorials, renaming buildings, and so on. But none has yet acted on a plan that transcends symbols to try to make amends for the wrong it has done.
Read: How should universities atone for their past mistakes?
A big reason for this is that a lot of colleges aren’t quite sure how to actually do that. “It’s really clear that if those 272 people had not been sold, Georgetown as we know it today would not be here,” says Jody Allen, a William & Mary professor who directs the Lemon Project, an initiative at William & Mary to address its complicity in racism. “It can’t get much clearer than that. But at a lot of other colleges, it’s murky.” That clarity has allowed for some 8,000 direct descendants of the Georgetown 272 to be identified—a remarkable genealogical feat that may not be replicable elsewhere.