The sins of one Jesuit priest have prompted the students of Georgetown University to volunteer reparations for slavery. In 1838, under the leadership of Father Thomas Mulledy, the institution sold a group of slaves to two men in Louisiana. A recent student-led campaign to make amends was approved by 66% of undergraduates in a vote recorded to have the highest turnout in the school’s history.
A tax of $27.20 per student will be mandatory each semester – whether or not the individual is descended from a slave owner. And students of color are also going to pay up. The sum is nominal; a $54 yearly reminder that slavery was alive, thriving and integral in paving the way for the many generations to follow. It’s a drop in the old oaken bucket – Georgetown’s tuition is a whopping $53,520 a year. Some students may have to skip one afternoon coffee outing, but they are making a public attempt to right their storied school history’s wrongs.
The Sins of the Fathers
The gesture is emotionally symbolic: The amount reminds students that 272 people were sold by their university to pay off the debts incurred after its founding in 1789. In part, the resolution aims to introduce:
“Charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of [the 272 sold slaves] and other persons once enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits – with special consideration given to causes and proposals directly benefiting those descendants still residing in proud and underprivileged communities.”
Of course, there are students who voted against the measure and felt the “Reconciliation Contribution,” as it was billed, was ramrodded through by labeling the opposition as “racist” on college blogs and social media. Liberalism in its nurturing environment. Nevertheless, the Georgetown University Hoyas are donning the latest scratchy sackcloth fashion and lounging in ashes to atone for the abhorrent practice of slave ownership.
As president of the university, Father Mulledy agreed to sell 272 men, women, and children in order to balance the books. The Vatican approved the sale if certain conditions were met: no familial separation, proceeds were not to be allocated to paying off debt or operating expenses, and the religious practices of the enslaved people were to be supported. That did not happen. Mulledy didn’t meet a single term and instead worshiped the $115,000 he was to receive. But a deal was a deal, so Henry Johnson and Jesse Beatty of Louisiana received the slaves with a ten-year “on-time” agreement and balloon payments on receipt of the people, who were shipped in batches.
The idea of reparations is noble but far too unrealistic on a national scale. Although Georgetown has detailed records and can trace its shameful past, the rest of America – including those whose ancestors fought for either side in the Civil War, and who immigrated after slavery had ended – are being grouped into two political groups designed to further divide the country. Not all white people were oppressors. Not all black people were slaves. To punish or reward either is not a policy that our government need adopt; from a simple logistical perspective, it could never be executed fairly.
Georgetown has a sordid past – an institution that used slaves to become one of the most renowned secular institutions in the world, turning out some of the country’s most influential and powerful people. A laundry list of powerful alumni includes the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, former President Bill Clinton, political king-maker Stephen Bannon, and former First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.
In 2016, the university adopted a policy to give a first-on-the-list opportunity to qualifying students descended from the original 272, to “offer an admissions edge to descendants of slaves as part of a comprehensive atonement.” Melisande Short-Colomb is one of those “legacy students.” At a student town hall meeting before the recent vote, she told students that “No one in this room was here in 1838 when this happened,” and then followed with, “We have a chance today to make a difference, so I’m going to pay my $54.”
She is paying her freedom forward, and that is commendable.