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Memory, Justice, History, and the “Right” to be Forgotten

Reflections on Georgetown’s Slave Legacy

For the past two years, since the publication of a front-page New York Times story on Georgetown University’s sale of 272 slaves, I’ve been following the saga how the university has dealt with this information.

By way of context, Georgetown is one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. When the Society of Jesus was begun in the sixteenth century, they were a part of the “Counter-Reformation” and, over time, acquired a reputation for traditionalism and orthodoxy. From the very beginning they helped found schools and were involved in educational endeavors. As time has progressed — there’s too much history to recount here — Jesuits have become known, especially since Vatican II, as one of the more progressive arms of the Catholic Church. Many Jesuit universities emphasize curricula that integrate social justice concerns with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Because Jesuits purposely engaged urban areas, from their beginnings, they are heavily implicated in finding ways to foster diversity and inclusion.

Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest of U.S. Jesuit universities. It sits near the heart of Washington, DC — about 2.5 miles from the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall (a 45-minute walk). For its first 80 years, Georgetown struggled with its finances. The aforementioned slave sale took place in 1838, during one of those periods of strain. The 272 slaves were sold to plantations in the deep South. Later, in the 1870s when Georgetown found stable financial footing, its president, Patrick F. Healy, S.J., was, ironically, an African American and a former slave.

Georgetown has, since 2015, been grappling with how to do justice with regard to the legacy of its slave sale. One the steps, outlined in an article yesterday (April 28) in The Washington Post, has been finding descendants of the slaves who were sold. Georgetown alumnus Richard Cellini heads a nonprofit organization, The Georgetown Memory Project, leading that effort. While that organization is independent of Georgetown and “aligned with with Georgetown slaves and their living descendants,” his efforts are coordinated, I believe, with the Georgetown University “Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.” That group is composed of university faculty and staff, and they submitted their first (and only) report in the Summer of 2016 (after the NYT article). It has been the Georgetown Memory Project (GMP), however, that’s done the bulk of the work over the past few years.

As of April 1, 2018, GMP has identified 211 of the slaves sold, and 6,157 of their descendants (these numbers are on the opening page of their website). GMP’s mission has four parts:

Identify the people sold in 1838.
Locate their living descendants.
Acknowledge them as members of the Georgetown family.
Honor their sacrifice & legacy.

If I am recalling other stories correctly, the goal of Georgetown University, and perhaps the GMP, is to provide substantial financial assistance to descendants of slave sale in order that they may attend the university. Those descendants are most certainly given “preferential status” in relation to admissions and, I believe, scholarships. Justice, they imply, requires them to actively search out these descendants and make the reconciliation/penance material. This has required a great deal of historical research — time and money to get to the actual reconciliation step.

The first part of the WaPo article outlines how Cellini and the GMP have run into trouble in both finding the resting places of the last third of the slaves sold and identifying their descendants. The article’s second half relays how GMP researchers have narrowed some of their search to the local Maryland area. This is because a condition of the sale was that husbands and wives not be separated. This meant that some of Georgetown’s slaves settled, lived, and died in Maryland. They were tracked down via DNA and name similarities. One of the descendants, then, was tracked down in rural Maryland. That person is 83 years old and was raised Catholic. He was fascinated with the findings presented to him, and agreed to a DNA test. Although the WaPo story names the individual, I’ll keep him anonymous here — per a desire relayed, ironically, in the story. I highly recommend that you leave this page, temporarily, and (if you haven’t already) read the second half of the WaPo story.

The story reminds readers of the benefits conveyed to descendants, and turns again to our 83-year-old Marylander. Here’s the crucial conclusion:

[GMP researcher Malissa] Ruffner asked him about his children, whom he rarely sees, and his grandchildren, some of whom may soon be looking at colleges. Wouldn’t he like to alert them? Couldn’t one of them potentially use the preferential status and try to get into Georgetown?

He said he wouldn’t reach out to them. The truth — and the burden of knowing it — was his alone to bear. No one else had to know.

If the Jesuits had wanted to make amends, he said, they should have done it decades ago. They should have helped his grandmother, or her mother. Now he’s 83, everyone before him is long dead, and it’s too late…

He had his answer [about his parents], but it was his answer, and no one else’s. So he stayed in his trailer, on Yorkshire Lane, in the county of the Jesuits and his ancestors, and asked for a favor.

“When they put my picture in the paper,” he said, “don’t have them put it anywhere prominent.”

I was taken aback by this — disheartened and confused.

Why would you make this kind of decision for your children and grandchildren? Where is the justice in that?

I understand the right to privacy, and the impulse, or right, to be forgotten. But why would you assume that your decision would reflect those of your autonomous descendants? Our Marylander was pleased to learn about his parents through the GMP research. But what if one of them had been given the choice to be forgotten? The answer, I think, is that the right or choice to be forgotten lies with you alone. Beyond that, one has no authority to make the choice for their descendants about a matter of material recompense, remuneration, or reconciliation. The idea of justice transcends your situational and personal desire. Reparation implies bridging the gap of injustice, even if you want your personal life to remain a black, or greyed out, silhouette in the great chain of memory and reconciliation. When you make the choice to create descendants, the truth and burden of knowing is never just yours to bear.

It may be the case that Georgetown and its alumni organization are performing social justice for larger theater of liberal, progressive spectators. This is implied through a comment, in the WaPo article, from our Maryland slave descendant. If so, how would a more sincere action appear to the outside world? Perhaps the WaPo story would not have been written because the GMP kept the story confidential. But, if Georgetown is setting a good example for other institutions that have benefited from slavery (e.g. Brown, the University of Missouri, Princeton, UChicago, etc.), would we want that candle hidden under a bushel? Is this not a good work that should be set up as an exemplar for other higher education institutions?

Georgetown University and the Georgetown Memory Project have decided to be open and honest about their process, which I believe is a good thing overall. Future researchers of higher ed will likely remember them well. In any case, the process has created a paper trail that will be easy for historians to follow.

Tim Lacy is a cultural and intellectual historian who works at University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. This article was originally published by the Society for US Intellectual History

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