The Roots of Georgetown

Georgetown University Roots, Georgetown Roots, Georgetown History

Those are Union soldiers in the foreground, with Georgetown University featured in the background atop the hill.

There’s a wonderful piece in “The New York Times” today written by Rachel L. Swarns. The piece focuses on Georgetown University’s ties in the nineteenth century to slavery. Now of course Georgetown was not the only American university whose history is intertwined with the slave trade. Brown University, Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia have each acknowledged in the public forum their connections to slavery. It’s just that in 1838, Georgetown’s Jesuit leaders sold 272 men, women, and children to preserve their institution, to pay off outstanding debts.

How do our readers believe Georgetown University, a school with a history tied — like many schools — to the slave trade, should attempt to right some of its past wrongs?

As Ms. Swarns writes, “The 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say. At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.”

Ms. Swarns’ article raises the question what Georgetown owes to these men, women, and children — and to their descendants, many of whom have been traced through a genealogical investigation organized by a Georgetown alumnus, Richard J. Cellini, whom Ms. Swarns dubs “an unlikely racial crusader” being as he’s a white male, a practicing Catholic, and one who admittedly has never focused too much attention on slavery. And yet his efforts have helped connect many of the progeny — the men, women, and children — who are descendants of this 1838 slave sale. It’s an incredible endeavor, one he should be quite proud of and one worthy of reading more about in Ms. Swarns’ fantastic piece on Georgetown’s roots.

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