I suppose it is never too late to apologize for a grievous injustice, even if the act– perpetrated by one of the world’s most revered religious orders at a distinguished institution of higher education – was perfectly legal at the time and took place 178 years ago.
So that’s what the good Jesuits who run Georgetown University in the heart of the nation’s capital have agreed to do.
In case you’re in the dark, in the 19th century, officials at the then-financially strapped school sold 272 Jesuit-owned slaves to raise capital.
Upon first learning this history, I was flabbergasted at the idea of priests and religious teachers owning slaves, let alone selling them. But I’m also not Catholic and am largely unfamiliar with the dirty laundry of Christianity’s oldest denomination other than the surface religious history they teach non-majors. And I’m sure Protestant clergy in the slave states were not all innocent on this issue either.
I had known other colleges and universities had dipped their toes in the slavery business in the early days of their development. Brown University was one of the first to confront this problem and try to make amends for the use of slave labor in the construction of several campus buildings, conceding some of the university’s benefactors were involved in the slave trade.
At the time of Brown’s amends-making, I found it sort of silly those who had nothing to do with the abominable process would wear sack cloth and ashes for those who did.
In the last two years, however, we’ve made something of a return to the civil rights era and have come to the realization that any gesture aimed at alleviating the mistreatment of black Americans by our institutions – be they governmental or private – should indeed be made with the utmost sincerity.
Georgetown’s slave sale was directed by two of the school’s presidents, both priests.
The fact that Georgetown is a religious institution, to me, makes the case stand out from those of other schools – including University of North Carolina and Washington and Lee University – that have had to make embarrassing admissions about their past associations with slavery.
Georgetown’s current president has pledged a series of steps devoted to making amends for the school’s past actions. The university will engage with slave descendants, offer them admission preferences to the highly selective school, create a memorial to their ancestors, and set up an institute to study slavery, among other steps.
Where this all leads, I’m not sure. But by owning up to their violations of human rights, America’s elite colleges and universities are taking the correct step, establishing that they understand even events that took place so long ago need to be put straight.