By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON – Georgetown University last year stripped from a building the name of one of its past presidents, a priest who authorized the sale of 272 women, children and men — slaves sold to save the university from financial ruin in 1838.
In a historic change of fortune, current university president John J. DeGioia announced Sept. 1 that the building will be renamed after one of the men the university sold as a result of the priest’s decision.
It was one of several steps DeGioia detailed as part of a plan to begin to deal with what he called “Georgetown’s participation in that disgrace,” meaning slavery.
With descendants of the slaves sold watching nearby, DeGioia formally apologized for the university’s past actions.
“There were two evils that took place,” he said. “The sale of slaves and the breakup of families.”
In 1838, Jesuit Father Thomas Mulledy, who was then the head of the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus as well as Georgetown’s president, authorized the sale of the southern Maryland slaves, which the university said was “controversial even by the standards of the day.” It violated conditions set by the Vatican, including that no families be separated.
DeGioia said the university will offer descendants of the slaves sold the same preference in the admissions process as it offers members of the “Georgetown community,” who are given an “extra look” and whose relationship to the university is considered as a factor. There was no mention of scholarships or other financial arrangements.
Mulledy Hall, first named after Father Mulledy, will be renamed Isaac Hall, taking the first name of the slave first listed in the sale documents. Another building, originally named after Jesuit Father William McSherry, who was also involved in the 1838 sale and in others slave sales, will be renamed Anne Marie Becraft Hall. It will honor a free woman of color who founded a school for black girls in Georgetown in 1827 and later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.
Georgetown also will create a memorial describing the sale and the significance of the event. The university, along with other representatives of the Catholic Church, will celebrate a Mass of reconciliation to seek forgiveness for the university’s involvement in slavery, which DeGioia called the country’s “original evil that framed the founding of our nation.”
Many of the steps announced came from suggestions made by what the university calls its Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which included faculty, students, alumni and descendants of slaves. The group also had asked for some form of reparative and meaningful financial commitment from the university but none was announced. In a statement, the university said the developments announced are the beginning of a journey of reconciliation.
DeGioia has met with some of the descendants, many who live in Louisiana, and said he was received with warmth. They also have great interest in their ancestors and Georgetown will work with them to help them learn as much about them as possible.
“We can help connect them to the families to which they were members,” DeGioia said, adding that descendants will be engaged in the creation of the memorial documenting the sale of their ancestors and are considered part of the Georgetown community.
The legacy of slavery as practiced at Georgetown and throughout the antebellum history of the United States has lingering consequences, DeGioia said, adding that the present is an important time to reflect about how to best address the enduring and persistent legacy of slavery, “the manifestations of which are all around us.”
“We need to address in our time the consequences of the original evil of slavery which were never ameliorated in any previous time,” he said. “While Georgetown was not alone in participating in the institution of slavery and we cannot alone undo the damage that has been done, we will not shrink from our obligations and we will seek ways to contribute to building a more just society.”
Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.