Georgetown University in 1838 was bailed out by the sale of 272 slaves owned by the Maryland Province of Jesuits. They made enough money to keep the doors open, just enough (as history would show) to give the small fledgling institution the chance to become one of our nation’s most prestigious universities.
All made possible by the lucre of human bondage.
But Georgetown is now trying to right that grievous wrong. Calling it a “Journey of Reconciliation,” the university has promised to rename buildings, set up an institute of research for the study of “Slavery and Its Legacies,” and establish memorials. And most notably, the university plans to engage the descendants of those slaves sold so long ago, giving eligible descendants reasonably preferential consideration in the admissions process.
Sins of the past atoned in the present. At least that’s the idea.
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Of course the school faces criticism. Some on the right think it all the ravings of identity politics, yet another symptom of the unreal privileged play of the pampered academe. And some on the left think the university hasn’t gone far enough, failing, for example, to allocate financial resources sufficient to make an actual difference in the lives of the descendants who might be so graciously admitted. The university has been as much accused as it has been praised for its attempted amends.
Yet aside from criticism, legitimate or otherwise, it’s a noble thing Georgetown is doing, never mind the jaundiced naysayers. And it’s a good thing for our country, modeling for the rest of us what the work of real racial reconciliation might actually look like, beyond the bitter aporias of our present divisions, some so hardened now they’ve become ends in themselves.
Now there’s a theology behind it, the call of Saint John Paul II (controversial in its day) when in advance of the new millennium he said the “Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ.” The pope invited us to create a more moral memory, to engage in a conversion rooted in real history. An invitation not everyone has taken up.
But Georgetown has. And they should be more commended than criticized. Whatever the university could have done better, it is at least encouraging to find an institution seriously committed to the deep work of lasting reconciliation, the work of memory and moral commitment.
And that’s what’s so exemplary. David Collins, the Jesuit who chaired the committee that brought this about, described the sober historical perspective behind its work. He said, “There’s something dysfunctional about cherry-picking only the pride-worthy aspects of a community’s past and saying these are things we will take credit for and the rest is not worth worrying about, as if the legacy of the good abides and that of the bad disappears, or is dismissed as someone else’s problem.”
Georgetown is candidly open about the past while being morally committed to the present. What if other universities made this commitment? Corporations, governments, the rest of the church? What if these institutions thought more explicitly in terms of truth and reconciliation than in terms of risk aversion? Justice might become a little more genuine and lasting, built slowly, piece by piece, as real justice truly is.
And in an age when we are more concerned with the gestures of football players on sidelines (which, let’s be clear, is a fleeting commodity in the marketplace of entertainment anger rather than anything like public discourse), it would be good for those who are serious about the work of racial reconciliation to learn from Georgetown. Because that’s what racial reconciliation actually looks like: slow, bureaucratic, small and boring.
But honest about the past and properly penitent, confident such truth will make our future better. That such truth will make us free.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is the parochial vicar and director of faith formation and education at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.
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