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How Georgetown should honor its former slaves

Monday 2 May 2016

By Maxine Crump and Richard J. Cellini

April 29

Maxine Crump is the great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Hawkins, one of the Georgetown slaves sold in 1838, and a member of the Georgetown Memory Project. Richard J. Cellini is an alumnus of Georgetown University and founder of the Georgetown Memory Project.

In 1838, Georgetown University cheated bankruptcy by selling 272 slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits to sugar plantations in Louisiana. Until just a few months ago, Georgetown folklore said that they all quickly succumbed to fever in the swamps of Louisiana. But in fact scores survived for decades. Thousands of their descendants are alive today.

Last year, the Georgetown Memory Project was founded as an independent nonprofit to trace the Georgetown slaves and locate their living descendants. Our research confirms that slavery is a past that is not yet past. In some cases, it has evolved into subtler forms of social injustice and oppression.

The 1838 sale involved real people, with real names and real families. Nace and Biby Butler were baptized by the Jesuits years before being sold. Nace Jr. escaped transportation to Louisiana and never saw his parents again. “Nace” is short for “Ignatius,” the founder of the Jesuit order. The Georgetown Memory Project owes its existence to dogged personal genealogical research by Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, a Butler descendant.

Cornelius Hawkins was 13 when he was sold. He was later valued at $900 and counted as “stock,” along with cows, mules and hogs. Cornelius didn’t choose his path. But he worked it. He remained a devout Catholic and kept his family together. To this day, divorces are scarce on his side of the family.

These stories can no longer be overlooked. We must revisit history to tell the truth about slavery and its legacy.

What should Georgetown do?

First, let’s make short work of the question of whether the slaves and their descendants are “members of the Georgetown family.” The Maryland Jesuits themselves called the slaves and their children “the family.” Welcome at Georgetown? They built Georgetown. They are the ultimate insiders.

Let’s also rebut any suggestion that many descendants seek involuntary reparations. Not a single descendant reached so far has asked for any such thing. They seek reconciliation and reunion, not reparations. As Pope Francis recently wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “love can transcend and overflow the demands of justice.” Too often, people think of love as a feeling instead of as a power. Love does not judge who is right or wrong; love is right and does what is right.

Now let’s talk about the future.

Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, recently expressed his commitment to reconciliation, writing: “This is the moment for us to find within each of ourselves and within our community, the resources of our moral imaginations to determine how we can contribute to responding to this urgent moment in our nation.”

Ours is not the first university to deal with a historical connection to slavery. Some have dealt with it poorly. Others have dealt with it adequately. Georgetown should deal with it magnificently. Let’s work together as one family to change lives, for generations to come.

Georgetown should honor its former slaves for their role in securing the university’s survival. If a single person had erased Georgetown’s debt in 1838, that benefactor’s name would today occupy a place of honor. The names of each and every one of the Georgetown slaves should appear in a place of honor for their priceless sacrifice. Honoring them collectively as the “GU272” — the campus shorthand often used to refer to the group — will only leave them unnamed once again.

The descendants of Georgetown slaves should have the opportunity to receive a Georgetown education. When applying for admission, they should receive the same “legacy status” granted to the descendants of other major benefactors.

Georgetown University and the Maryland Jesuits should promptly identify all recipients of the 1838 sale proceeds (worth more than $3.3 million in today’s money, without compound interest). The Maryland Province recently acknowledged that sale proceeds “provided financial support for Jesuit works in this period . . . including to Georgetown University.” This statement openly raises the question whether other Jesuit institutions benefited financially as well.

The Catholic Church and the Maryland Jesuits should be more forthright in acknowledging their part in this damaging legacy. The Catholic Church has been silent so far. The Jesuits have not yet agreed to speak directly with representatives of descendants seeking genealogical and sacramental records.

Georgetown University and the Maryland Jesuits should jointly fund an independent nonprofit to assist scholars and living descendants seeking to trace the family trees of Georgetown slaves.

Researchers should be granted full access to all relevant financial, agricultural and sacramental records — free of republication restrictions such as those currently imposed by the university’s archives. Family histories must never be used as a bargaining chip.

What else can we achieve as a family?

We can raise money for dozens of scholarships for descendants of Georgetown slaves. We can support high schools serving African American communities in Maryland, Louisiana and the District. Together, we can achieve things literally unimaginable to the Georgetown slaves or their Jesuit masters.

We can’t erase the past. But together we can create the future. The very worst of Georgetown can summon forth the very best from Georgetown. To quote Pope Francis again: “Every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world.”

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