Georgetown University atones a 200-year-old sin

How do you atone for a nearly 200-year-old sin?

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - Deeply in debt in the early 1800s, the Jesuit school sold almost 300 of its own slaves down the river to the brutal plantations of Louisiana.

On Thursday, the university offered a formal apology, a public memorial for the slaves who endowed the university with their own lives, and an admissions preference for the slaves’ descendants.

Some of the 272 slaves must have cried, others prayed the rosary as men, women and children were loaded onto a slave ship in the Georgetown harbor in the fall of 1838.

Even then, the slave sale was controversial. It broke apart families in violation of Vatican doctrine, and while the university promised the slaves could continue to practice their Catholic faith, that promise was broken.
Some of their descendants still tell their stories.

"I am told that very young, she waved goodbye to her mother on a shore. And watched her mother get on a ship or a boat, and so she never saw her again,” Cheryllyn Branche said in July.

Georgetown graduate Richard Cellini helped find some of the descendants. There are as many as 10,000 to 15,000 of them now.

“If somebody had written a check in 1838 that wiped out the university's debts, there is no doubt in my mind that buildings would be named after that person, that person would be celebrated, and his descendants would have no problem being admitted to Georgetown, even down unto this day,” Cellini said.

Now there will be a building named after them.

RELATED: Georgetown to give slave descendants priority admission 

Georgetown has removed the names of the Reverend Thomas Mulledy and the Reverend William McSherry, former presidents involved in the slave trade, and renamed the buildings after Isaac, one of the slaves, and black educator Anne Marie Becraft.
  
“It made me look at Georgetown differently,” student Erroll French said.

He appreciated the university’s efforts to right a wrong.

“It made me proud to say Georgetown is trying to make it better. They realize the wrong that was done,” he said. “They realize that was something that shouldn't have been done and they're trying to rectify it.”

There have already been hiccups with the healing process.

Administrators failed to invite the descendants to President John DeGioia's speech on Thursday afternoon. One of them turned up anyway.

University officials plans to create an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.

But it has yet to offer any special scholarships for the descendants of slaves who helped build the university -- other than the need-blind, meet-full-need commitments it's already made to all low-income students.


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