As part of a wider “working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation”, Georgetown University in the United States has announced that it will give preferential treatment to applicants descended from slaves sold at the institution in 1838.
The university’s restitution programme, which is taking place after sustained pressure from student protesters, also includes the renaming of residence halls from the names of university officials involved in the slave sale to names of the slaves themselves.
A sit-in protest took place in November in the president’s office, in which protesters claimed Georgetown students were “not allowing stuff to just fly anymore”, according to Slate magazine.
The latest proposed part of the university’s scheme is to offer preferential access to the university’s high competitive admissions process to descendants of the 272 slaves sold to pay university debts in the early nineteenth century.
The descendants of slaves applying to the university will be given “the same consideration [the University] gives to members of the Georgetown community”, receiving “an extra look” and having their connection to the university included in the decision to accept or reject their application.
In a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Georgetown President John DeGioia acknowledged that “Georgetown participated in the institution of slavery. There were slaves here on the hilltop until emancipation in 1862”.
“We cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history”, he added.
Students protesting against the university’s history of slavery used the hashtag #GU272 and #BuildOn272 to draw attention to the slaves that have become the focal point of their campaign.
Georgetown is just one university in the United States to face criticism over failure to acknowledge historic ties to slavery. Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at MIT, pointed out that “before the American Revolution, there were nine colleges established in the British Colonies, and all of them have direct ties to slavery and slave trade”.
Action by educational institutions over their oppressive pasts under pressure from students is not unique to the United States, as the RMF campaigns in UCT and Oxford and the removal of Jesus College’s cock statue in Cambridge show.