Reflections on Georgetown University’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope

Today, Georgetown University will hold a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” as the first step in acknowledging the role the institution, then Georgetown College, played in the sale of 272 men, women and children from a failed plantation in southern Maryland in 1838. The 272 slaves were sold to a series of plantations in Louisiana, splitting up children and their parents and subjecting these slaves to brutal conditions in what were some of the most barbaric plantations in the south. 

Within the last year, Georgetown has grappled with how to come terms with its ugly past. Descendants of the original 272 slaves have largely been found and contacted, and many of them will be present at the ceremony today. Before this year, most of these descendants did not know the history of the Georgetown-owned plantation and, in many cases, the roots of their own Catholicism.

Georgetown joins Brown, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and other universities that are now struggling with their role in slavery or ways in which their past leadership glorified slave owners. Among Georgetown’s responses is the renaming of a residence hall that honored President Thomas F. Mulledy, who was responsible for the 1838 sale. Today, the building was renamed for Isaac Hawkins, one of the slaves who was among those on the original bill of sale.

Georgetown has received recognition for confronting its history head-on and for embarking on a series of steps that, in addition to renaming the building, include creating a diversity requirement for all students and offering preferred admission for the children of all descendants. This process is a critical step in reconciling the complicit relationship many of our universities had with slavery, in either benefiting directly from the economics of slavery or being led by men who were active slave owners.

Despite the relatively positive views of Georgetown’s historic action on this issue, some feel the institution has not gone far enough. Some descendants and other community leaders have called for financial reparations that reflect the financial gain that Georgetown garnered from the sale. Other activists are demanding that other named buildings, statues, artwork, and other artifacts be removed or renamed because their continued presence glorifies the actions of past leadership.

Still others believe the history needs to be retained so that the context of oppression and racial injustice can be understood. Harvard President Drew Faust, a Civil War historian, argues if we take actions that “erase the whole past, it’s too easy to feel innocent. It’s too easy to not learn from it and to think that you’re not going to make any mistakes in the present—you’re better than those mistakes. We’re not better than those mistakes.”

These difficult conversations need to happen. In this era of student activism, we should expect that students and alumni will demand a full account of past actions that celebrated and honored slave owners or where the institution itself benefited from slavery. Institutional leaders would be well served to develop a full understanding of the role their institution played in slavery and to engage students and the community in dialogue about future steps to address the legacy of slavery. This is not an issue best managed by messaging and strategic communications, but instead an issue that demands sunshine, transparency, and humility.

Lessons can be learned from the process Georgetown used this past year. Like most high-level issues, presidential leadership is critical. President John DeGioia was clear in his messaging and outwardly transparent in his efforts to move the university to and through this process of apology and contrition. His willingness to meet with descendants and the development of a process steeped in humility put a decidedly human face on what could have been academic exercise.

Historically, American colleges and universities have served as a key part of our collective moral conscience. The historical legacy of slavery remains a dark stain on America’s history. As Maya Angelou shared, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Our colleges and universities should and must do as Georgetown has done today: face their pasts, share remorse for past institutional decisions, and take action to engage current students, alumni and community members in how best to move forward. Today’s higher education leaders must publicly recognize the harm that was done to so many and outline a way forward that will both educate and empower individuals to engage in critical dialogue about the horrors of the past in order to improve our shared future.