Last week, Georgetown University students voted in favor of a referendum suggesting a $27.20 tuition increase. If the referendum is approved by their Board of Trustees, the extra revenue will be used to fund “charitable purposes” to benefit the descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the University in 1838 to pay its debts. In 2017, Georgetown formally apologized for the sale as part of a larger effort to grapple with its history, especially in relation to slavery. That same week, UNC-Chapel Hill Police announced that two people were arrested for the March vandalism of the Unsung Founders Memorial at UNC, a commemoration of labor done by people of color at the university. These two events remind us that the histories of our universities are often intertwined with exploitation, whether of enslaved people or otherwise, and we retain an obligation to confront and expose these histories.
The policy proposal endorsed by two-thirds of student voters at Georgetown would be the first attempt by an institution of higher education to use student funds to monetarily correct its historical transgressions—in other words, to pay reparations. In the previously referenced 2017 apology, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia made clear that slavery was “an evil that our university was complicit in” and that the school will engage in a “communal reckoning.” Since then, Georgetown officials have also renamed two buildings on campus that had previously memorialized Jesuits involved in slavery. Additionally, an African American Studies Department has been created and the university plans to unveil a Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies among a slew of other reforms.
Although Georgetown’s stab at reckoning is unique, the university’s involvement in slavery is certainly not. Samuel Stanhope Smith, Princeton’s seventh president (1795-1812) was not only a slaveholder but also the inspiration for the American Colonization Society, an organization dedicated to sending freed slaves back to Africa under the assumption that they were unable to integrate into American society. All six of Princeton’s presidents before Smith were slaveholders as well, as were the two to follow him.
Though Duke University was formally established in 1924, the history of our University is also clearly connected to slavery, a reality which we as a community continue to neglect. Though it is not mentioned on the Rubenstein Library page about him, Washington Duke, the industrialist for whom Duke University is named, purchased a girl named Caroline, who was no more than twelve years old at the time. She remained enslaved to the Duke family for at least five years, after which there are no more records of her existence. Furthermore, according to the Duke Homestead historic site and museum, Duke also “rented the services of an enslaved man named Jim in the early years of the Civil War.” Contrary to the sanitized narrative of the Dukes as beneficiaries of hard work and good fortune, it is undeniable that their success and thus the establishment of this University are intertwined with the ugly realities of forced labor and enslavement.
The history of the Duke family is not the only part of the University steeped in racist legacies. Duke recently complied with a demand to remove the name of Julian Carr, a “virulent white supremacist” from a building on East Campus. Previously, the first-year dormitory Aycock, named after the North Carolina governor and staunch segregationist, was renamed East Residence Hall. A similarly unknown history is that of the Trinity College students who formed the Trinity Guard, a quasi-reserve force created to support the Confederate war effort, many of whom served as guards at a Confederate POW camp.
Georgetown’s actions come at a time when several politicians vying for the Democratic nomination for the presidency have advocated for reparations, bringing a once niche recommendation to the forefront of national discourse. Yet the defacement of the memorial at UNC as well as the still unresolved debate over Silent Sam, the confederate monument, remind us that if the needle has moved at all, it has been very little.
We write not to offer policy recommendations or under any pretense of having the solution to centuries of oppression and violence. But if these recent stories: at Georgetown, down the road at UNC, or in the national political news suggest anything to us, it is that now may be the time to grapple with histories long ignored and with the present realities of marginalization and bigotry that continue. It is absolutely the least we could do.
This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.