I suppose it is never too late to apologize for a grievous injustice, even if the shocking incident — perpetrated by one of the world’s most revered religious orders at a distinguished institution of higher education — was perfectly legal at the time and took place 178 years ago.
So that’s what the good Jesuits who run Georgetown University in the heart of the nation’s capital have agreed to do.
In case you’re in the dark, in the 19th century, officials at the then-financially strapped school sold 272 Jesuit-owned slaves to raise capital.
Upon first learning this history, I was flabbergasted at the very idea of priests and religious teachers owning slaves, let alone selling them. But then again, I’m not Catholic and am largely unfamiliar with the dirty laundry of Christianity’s oldest denomination other than the surface religious history they teach non-majors. And I’m sure protestant clergy in the slave states were not all innocent on this issue either.
I had known that other colleges and universities had dipped their toes in the slavery business in the early days of their development, particularly in the construction of their campuses. Brown University, an Ivy League gem, was one of the first to confront this problem and to try to make amends for the use of slave labor in the construction of several campus buildings, conceding that some of the university’s benefactors were involved in the slave trade.
At the time of Brown’s amends-making, I found it sort of silly that those who had nothing to do with the abominable process would wear sack cloth and ashes for those who did.
In the past two years, however, we’ve made something of a return to the civil rights era and have come to the realization that any gesture aimed at alleviating the mistreatment of black Americans by our institutions — be they governmental or private — should indeed be made with the utmost sincerity. Black Lives Matter organizers and others have reminded us how far we have yet to go in our journey toward the equality promised by our founders.
Georgetown’s slave sale was directed by two of the school’s presidents, both priests.
The fact that Georgetown is a religious institution, to me, makes the case stand out from those of other schools that have had to make embarrassing admissions about their past associations with slavery. Among that group are the University of Virginia, founded by slave owner Thomas Jefferson, the universities of North Carolina and South Carolina, the College of William & Mary, Mississippi, and Washington and Lee University.
Georgetown’s current president has pledged a series of steps devoted to making amends for the school’s past actions. The university will engage with slave descendants, offer them admission preferences to the highly selective school, create a memorial to their ancestors, and set up an institute to study slavery, among other steps.
Where this all leads, I’m not sure. But by owning up to their violations of human rights, America’s elite colleges and universities are taking the correct step, establishing that they understand even events that took place so long ago need to be put straight.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.