Staff Editorial: GW can lead the way in universities atoning for slavery

Slavery in the U.S. was not a practice constrained to large plantations in the Deep South. Slavery was an institution right here in D.C. and in the closely surrounding areas. Georgetown University’s history is entangled with slavery, and officials at Georgetown are doing more than just acknowledging that the university directly benefitted from it — they are apologizing and taking action.

Maryland Jesuit-owned slaves were sold by Georgetown in 1838 to save the university from going under. Earlier this month, Georgetown officials announced that the university would provide preferred admission to descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits. Preferred admission means that these students’ applications would be considered in the same way that legacy students’ are. Georgetown University president John DeGioia announced the preferred admission plan after a Georgetown committee discussed ways to atone for the university’s profits from slavery. DeGioia also issued a formal apology for the university’s ties to slavery.

The Hatchet’s editorial board could not come to a consensus on whether Georgetown’s preferred admission plan is a satisfying first step in atoning for the direct ways the institution benefitted from slavery. But it doesn’t really matter what we think because we are not Georgetown students. However, we believe that universities, including GW, should take the situation at Georgetown as a signal to acknowledge their own ties to slavery. Georgetown should not be alone in their efforts to confront the past, and we should use it to inspire equity in higher education. Countless universities have ties to slavery, and GW has its place in this discussion.

GW was not built by slaves, and no one sold slaves to fund the University’s survival, but GW profits from the name recognition of our nation’s first president, who was a slave owner. University officials should acknowledge that George Washington owned slaves and proactively make amends by creating a scholarship fund for descendants of slaves to attend GW.

Slavery is part of our nation’s history, and the effects of that history reverberate today. While GW should not guarantee admission to descendants of slaves, officials should make it easier for those people to receive quality educations. For years and years, families of former slaves have been left behind. Just because slavery ended doesn’t mean the effects don’t carry over to our lives today. It’s up to GW, and other universities, to start making amends.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said officials are continuing to consider how GW is connected to slavery, but at this point, they don’t have any official plans.

“We will continue to discuss and explore the institution’s history regarding slavery and segregation with students and other members of our community this year,” Smith said.

A scholarship fund for slaves’ families would fit in with officials’ recent goals to diversify our student body. The University continuously makes announcements about initiatives that would make GW more accessible and diverse. Students bring more than their transcripts and resumes to a university: They bring their perspectives. And GW officials should want to do anything they can to diversify perspectives — including those of former slaves’ families — by making sure students have the means to get here.

As a society, we should take actions — however comparably small to the harm that has been done — to reconcile past atrocities. We do not need to try to erase our history, but institutions of higher education have the opportunity to rectify the impasses our society created for African Americans.

A scholarship would not give students a leg up in the admissions process. Rather, after they are accepted to the University, they would have money to pay for it. It’s a way to help deserving students finance their educations if they couldn’t otherwise — and that’s something every university should endorse.

GW has the opportunity to be a trendsetter. We aren’t the first school to take action to atone for slavery, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t set an example by being one of the first institutions to make sure descendants of slaves can achieve quality higher education.

Other universities would certainly have the opportunity to follow in GW’s footsteps: The fourth U.S. president James Madison was also a slave owner. James Madison University hasn’t directly benefited from slavery or Madison’s ownership of slaves. Similarly, George Mason — a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — was a slave owner, and a university bears his name, too.

As a university, we should set standards. And this is a standard GW should be proud to set. As more colleges announce their own plans for acknowledging the wrongfulness of slavery in the past, GW should seize the opportunity to set an example and do something that would truly benefit students who are slaves’ descendants.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.

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