THE BLOG
10/20/2016 05:07 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2017

Atoning For Slavery: An Institution Grapples With Its Original Business Model

It is altogether fitting and proper that, in this period of heightened racial tensions and resurgence of white privilege, it is a university, a seat of higher learning and a religious-based one at that, which seeks to atone for America's Original Sin---slavery.

Georgetown University, the Roman Catholic-affiliated institution in Washington, D.C., falling on straitened times, in 1838 kept its doors open with the sale of 272 slaves---men, women, and children---from its plantations in nearby Maryland to plantations in Louisiana. The sale was worth $3.3 million in today's dollars.

Doing the right thing---making recompense---Georgetown, one of America's elite universities, recently announced it will take a series of historically unprecedented steps, including granting preference in admission to the descendants of those 272 slaves who were sold, as well as to the descendants of those slaves who remained indentured to Georgetown and labored to its benefit.

Additionally, Georgetown will issue a formal apology for its part in this ugly chapter in American history, erect a monument to its slaves, rename two buildings that honor Jesuit priests who facilitated the sale of the 272, and establish an institute for the study of slavery. Last year it launched the Georgetown Memory Project, to track these descendants. While slaves elsewhere were lost in anonymity, in Georgetown's case descendants could be identified, thanks to meticulous record-keeping.

Along with doing the right thing, Georgetown is saying the right thing---things that could usefully be repeated across the nation at this moment. University president John J. DeGioia, the major force behind this reconciliation effort, has been eloquent in finding the words to face elemental truth. He speaks of the "two evils" of slavery: the enslavement of human beings itself and the rupture of slave families upon sale. He speaks of the early Georgetown Jesuits' "failure of moral imagination." Declaring that "our moral agency must be channeled to un-do this damage," Dr. DeGioia on Sept. 1 addressed a formal gathering of slave descendants along with faculty and students, saying:

"This community participated in the institution of slavery. This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here. We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth..... As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history. We must acknowledge it."

Indeed: How can our "best work" go forward when "this original evil" goes unaccounted for? How can conscience square with the enslavement of fellow human beings? How have we and ours benefited---unknowingly or, worse, knowingly---from slave labor, both current and in the distant past? These are the hard questions any number of universities, museums, corporations and whole industries, municipalities and states, even individual families, might ask themselves.

Pointing the way, Georgetown University last year began to examine its origins, issuing a 102-page report titled "Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation." Especially compelling is the discussion of the university's original business model: From its Maryland plantations established in 1700 to the founding of the university in 1789 and beyond, slavery was central, built-in. As the report outlines:

"Plantation profits and proceeds from the sale of slaves on those plantations were seen as a source of funding for the school. Bequests and other charitable gifts were also a significant part of the funding model.... Given a regional economy that was largely agricultural, this benefaction can also be in large part linked to the U.S. slave economy. A recruitment strategy oriented to the South deepened the school's links to slavery, and the general attitude of Jesuit faculty and students favored slavery as at least a necessary evil. Into the nineteenth century, as tensions between pro- and anti-slavery opinion grew, the mood at the College was pro-slavery and ultimately pro-Confederacy."

Thus a business model based on "original evil" becomes institutionalized and is reinforced over time and by culture to become a given, a norm, not to be re-examined. How many other institutions, notably those dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, will have the courage to undertake such examination of their business model or origins story?

Still, it is astonishing that Jesuit priests, putative men of God, could ever have accepted slavery as a "necessary evil." The Vatican urged emancipation and keeping the slave families intact, but these stipulations went unfulfilled. According to the report, among Jesuits on the East Coast three factions formed around the sale of the 272: One faction, the smallest in number, opposed the sale on moral principle and favored emancipation; another, the largest, favored keeping the slaves as (curiously) a "religious obligation"; and the third, which included the most powerful figures, argued for sale. (Sadly, this disposition of priestly morality, rather than model, would match that of "the flock" at most any time in human history.)

Other elite universities with a long history---Harvard, Brown, Columbia, University of Virginia---have likewise acknowledged the ignominy of their early involvement with slavery, often, it should be noted, under pressure from student protests (also here). But Georgetown is the first to take affirmative action on behalf of the injured parties, its slave descendants. Craig Steven Wilder of M.I.T., a scholar of universities and slavery, gives credit to Georgetown: "It's taking steps that a lot of universities have been hesitant to take." Wilder also credits Georgetown for dealing with "the humanity of the problem," not just as public relations (also here). Much depends, though, on the thoroughness of Georgetown's outreach.

Georgetown might do even more: In addition to preferential admissions treatment---the kind of preference given generations of children of white alumni---Georgetown might offer financial assistance to those slave descendants admitted. Going further, it might, as The New York Times editorializes, establish a scholarship fund "specifically for descendants who are poor and generationally disadvantaged by the legacy of slavery from which Georgetown profited." The University's endowment of $1.45 billion suggests its financial recompense could include this broader category of the "generationally disadvantaged."

Additionally, these elite universities might form a consortium---to coordinate best practices of institutional re-examination and also, importantly, guide the general population in a re-examination long overdue and now heated to the boiling point.

Which is why Georgetown's act of recompense for the "original evil" of slavery comes at a propitious time. Certainly for African-Americans and Georgetown's slave descendants, it could have come earlier---much, much earlier. But in another context, it is timely: With the racist and xenophobic "presidential" candidacy of Donald J. Trump, with the sudden rise to prominence of the white supremacist "alt-right" movement, and with the forceful white pushback at the Black Lives Matter movement ("All lives matter"), the morally weak cause of white supremacy has never been in such a loud and angry, unfettered and unapologetic voice ("Apologize? Why apologize?"). Nuance is gone, making calm reconsideration of white power and privilege difficult.

But perhaps Georgetown's reminder that human enslavement is America's "original evil" and racism our abiding sin will penetrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. promised that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Now is the time for all good people to lend their weight and bend that arc.

See "Georgetown Slavery Archive" here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)