Countless prosperous societies have been built on a foundation of oppression, with some classes of people forced to suffer for the betterment of others. And even long after conditions improve, the unjustly extracted benefits often remain in place.
It’s certainly true in the United States, where slave labor not only shored up the fledgling nation’s economy but also helped create physical landmarks that are today considered historic. It’s also true at Georgetown University, which not only employed hundreds of slaves at its campus and nearby plantations in the early 19th century, but also avoided a financial crisis by selling 272 slaves in 1838.
The incident was largely forgotten, but Georgetown University has recently worked to bring greater prominence to this ugly side of its history. It’s publicized research on the issue. It renamed one building in honor of sold slave Isaac Hawkins, and another for Anne Marie Becraft, a free black woman who established a school in the Georgetown community for black girls. It has promised admissions preference to descendants of its former slaves. And last week, the university hosted nearly 200 descendants for a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope.”
“Slavery remains the original evil of our Republic — an evil that our university was complicit in,” university President John DeGioia said during the liturgy. He acknowledged the school’s “sin that tore apart families [and] that through great violence denied and rejected the dignity and humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers. We lay this truth bare — in sorrowful apology and communal reckoning.”
The truth doesn’t undo the damage. But Georgetown’s efforts are an important step that we can all appreciate and respect.