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Students in the US are demanding slavery reparations from their universities. But how much can modern institutions give?

Monday 2 May 2016

The protests at Georgetown, Princeton and Harvard raise two questions: Where does this re-examination of US history end, and what should be done to make amends?

Rupert Cornwell

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So wrote William Faulkner, and so it is with America’s eternal demon of race. And so it is with Georgetown University here in Washington DC, founded in 1789 and alma mater of Bill Clinton among others, not just the oldest university in the nation’s capital, but the oldest Catholic college in the country.

The election of a black president, some hoped, would end the centuries of division, heralding a post-racial society in which age-old tensions and prejudices could finally be laid to rest. If anything, the opposite has happened. As Faulkner might have predicted, outrages of the present – police shootings of unarmed black men, the murder of black congregants in a South Carolina church by a deranged white supremacist – have meshed with, and propelled, a jarring re-examination of outrages of the past. And nowhere more than in the august confines of Georgetown.

It is a terrible tale, which has been several years in the unearthing by university historians. But it only came to wider public attention with a front page article in The New York Times this month (ed: April), that traced the descendants of 272 slaves living on plantations the university owned in nextdoor Maryland, who were sold and shipped in 1838 to Louisiana, to work on sugar plantations, where conditions were notoriously brutal.

The proceeds of the sale, arranged by Georgetown’s then president Thomas Mulledy, helped pay off the university’s debts and thus keep it in existence. But Mulledy compounded his sin by callously flouting an order that the slave families should be kept intact. And all this at an institution that was not just Catholic, but Jesuit, that had betrayed the order’s humanist traditions in the name of money.

However wretched Georgetown’s behaviour, it is but the latest celebrated US university forced to confront an ambiguous past. Harvard Law School is facing demands to redesign its seal, which featured the family crest of slave owners, while Yale is for now resisting pressure to re-name its Calhoun college – the Calhoun in question being an alumnus who was the seventh US vice-president, and famously declared that slavery was “a positive good.”

In few countries, added Calhoun, “is so much left to the share of the labourer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age.” Tell that to the Georgetown slaves who were sold off as chattel to Louisiana for a few hundred dollars apiece.

And then there’s Princeton, another of America’s great seats of learning. Princeton is above all identified with Woodrow Wilson, who was a student and then president of the university before becoming the 28th president of the United States. Abroad, he is above all known as the idealist who tried to create a lasting peace after World War I. But Wilson was also an unreconstructed segregationist. The university beat back an attempt by activists to have his name removed from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs – just as Oxford refused this year to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and racist, but also a huge benefactor of the university. As a consolation prize however, Princeton has just agreed to remove an “unduly celebratory” mural featuring Wilson from one of its dining halls.

As Faulkner said, the past is not even past. The events in question may have taken place 100 or 200 years ago, but they could have been on the to-do list of Black Lives Matter, the movement that emerged after the shooting of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighbourhood watch vigilante in 2012.

The protests are admirable and in most cases long overdue. However they raise two questions: Where does this re-examination of US history end, and what should be done to make amends? Slavery was not an isolated problem. It was America’s original sin, an evil that consciously or unconsciously influenced virtually every walk of national life, and whose legacy persists to this day.

You can take down the name of Thomas Mulledy from campus buildings, as Georgetown is doing. But what of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the first, third and fourth presidents, founders of their country, great statesmen all, but each the owner of hundreds of slaves? Remove their names and the map of the United States would be a patchwork of blank names. Like Wilson, they are part of US history, and history cannot be sanitized. Removing the visible mementoes of those who have given offence induces merely amnesia.

The answer, obviously, is to face the facts and make amends, symbolic or otherwise. But that too is often easier said than done. In the case of Georgetown, the solution seems reasonably simple: a permanent scholarship fund for the descendants, estimated at 12,000 or more, of those shipped off to Louisiana. Thanks to the rigorous record-keeping of the Jesuits, their ancestors’ names are known.

But when you move from the particular to the general, the problem becomes infinitely more complex. Symbolic steps can be taken, like the announcement 10 days ago the slave-owning Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, will be replaced on the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman, runaway slave, and heroine of the abolitionist movement. She will be both the first woman and the first African-American to grace a Federal Reserve note.

But direct financial reparations for slavery, as demanded by some, are simply impracticable. The sum, by economists’ calculation, would run into the tens, even hundreds of trillions of dollars. Records are scanty or often missing entirely: just who would be eligible? And where geographically, to draw the line? Slavery dates back to colonial America. Should the British, the French, the Spanish cough up as well?

Better, surely, to concentrate on making today’s America a better place for the descendants of slaves, and have its monuments tell the full story. History, warts and all, must be faced up to – not rewritten. Places like the Soviet Union tried to do that, but ultimately there is no escaping the truth. The past never dies.

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