Georgetown University President John DeGioia, while acknowledging that the famed institution had historically “participated in the institution of slavery,” nevertheless rejected last night recommendations that the university should prioritize the descendants of slaves in its admissions process. He agreed with anthropologists, such as C. Loring Brace of the University of Michigan, that “race is a construct” that was “constructed in America.”
 
DeGioia spoke recently at a Georgetown University conference on racial justice. There he addressed the prospect that the institution would give special accommodation to the descendants of slaves. The colloquium was part of an effort that began last year to seek atonement for Georgetown’s ties to slavery. In 2015, a “Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation” was created and issued its final report last week. Last week, DeGioia  issued a letter to students and faculty in which he said that the university would offer an apology, among other efforts towards reconciliation. It stopped short of endorsing an admissions preference for the descendants of slaves.
 
Among its conclusions, the report recommended that DeGioia should issue a formal, public apology for his predecessors, and also establish “an advantage in the admissions process” for the descendants of their slaves. The final report also said that an apology should be “offered jointly with the provincial superior of the Maryland Jesuits.”
 
While he did not offer an apology, DeGioia did say that Georgetown will celebrate a “Mass of reconciliation” – a church service which will beg God’s forgiveness for slavery. DeGioia stated that the university “will provide the same care and respect to the descendants of slaves” as it would to any other minority group.” He also declared that "we must acknowledge that Georgetown participated in the institution of slavery," and added, "we cannot do our best work if we cannot take ownership.”
 
Later on during his address, DiGioia said, “Race is a construct,” and "It was constructed in America.”
 
Before the Civil War, many notable Catholics owned slaves in the United States. Among them were Charles Carroll of Maryland, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his brother John Carroll, who became the first Catholic archbishop of the newly formed United States. Among Jesuits, the Catholic order of men that founded Georgetown, there were also slave owners. In his book, "Slavery and the Catholic Tradition: Rights in the balance", Rev. Stephen F. Brett gives a glimpse of the history of theological thought on institution of slavery: 
 
"Two Catholic moralists of Spain's siglo de oro, Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) and Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), examined the condition of the Indians of the New World. Using the theological system of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), they attacked the excesses of the conquistadores but concluded that slavery was justifiable under some circumstances. This study compares and contrasts their adapted notion of the critical concepts of «right» and «dominion» with the original perspective of Aquinas."
 
A group of descendants of slaves sold by Jesuits in the 1800s has appealed to Georgetown University and Maryland Jesuits to promote reconciliation after the horrors of slavery by creating a $1 billion charitable foundation. A group of the descendants of these slaves said yesterday that they have raised $115,000 towards the goal. That amount is the price for which 272 slaves were sold in 1838 in payment for a debt. In modern money, it would be $3 million.
 
Last week, DeGioia publicly thanked several descendants, saying: “Thank you for your trust and confidence in this institution that it might be able to be the kind of resource that you just described. We wouldn’t presume what we are capable of on our own. The opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges that I tried to speak about and that you just spoke of, this is at the heart of what we were trying to be as a university.”
 
Black students and allies have conducted protests to demand restitution for slavery. “We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary,” Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant who helped develop the idea for the foundation, said in a statement yesterday.
 
“We viewed this as a prime opportunity for an institution that profited from slavery to join with the descendants of those enslaved to create a model for healing and redress in our nation,” said Joseph Stewart, in a statement for the group. “Yet we firmly believe in the old saying that, ‘Nothing about us, without us.’ ”
 
In a speech last week, DeGioia said he wanted to engage with the descendants of slaves. Among his offerings was a recommendation to name scholarships in honor of the enslaved. In last week's missive, DeGioia wrote: "I believe the most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time." In this, the influential Catholic Herald of the UK was in agreement.  The newspaper noted that as many as 45 million persons may be held in forced labor worldwide today, and that there are 60,000 slaves in the United States at present. An article in the paper set out a proposed agenda for human rights activists and students:
 
"What can be better achieved is the learning of past events and avoiding the repetition of history, though sadly humanity is all too adept at doing so in different ways. Protesting students, rightly horrified by the past, would do well to turn from prosecuting those whom God alone can judge and reconcile, and turn their energies to modern slavery.
 
"One theological approach to highlight as the university continues to consider its history is that offered by St Ambrose of Milan, who explained in a letter that it is not nature that makes a person a slave, but folly, and it is not emancipation that makes someone free but learning."
 
 
 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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