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Georgetown To Offer An Edge In Admissions To Slaves' Descendants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of Georgetown says it's time for his university to confront its past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN DEGIOIA: This community participated in the institution of slavery. This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

John DeGioia said that in a speech yesterday. Georgetown University has decided to take unprecedented steps to atone by giving preferential admission treatment to the descendants of all the slaves whose labor it benefited from back in its early years and, in particular, slaves who were sold. We called up Marcia Chatelain, who is a professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown. Good morning.

MARCIA CHATELAIN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Georgetown is a Jesuit university founded by the order in 1789. And I think a lot of people will be wondering, what were Jesuits doing owning slaves in the first place?

CHATELAIN: Jesuits were prohibited from charging tuition until the mid-19th century. And so plantations were used as a way to support institutions like Georgetown College. And so the owning of slaves and the owning of property was a mechanism in order to fuel these colleges and other initiatives done by the order.

MONTAGNE: These plantations, at that time, were in the state of Maryland. If they were working on these plantations, why did, all of a sudden, in 1838, the Jesuits - the university, effectively - sell them all?

CHATELAIN: Well, there were some financial issues for the institution that - the president at the time, Thomas Mulledy, decided that the sale of the slaves would be the answer to deal with the university's debt and allow for its survival, essentially.

And this decision was incredibly controversial and was at odds with some of the directives that were coming out of Rome about what to do with slaves. And so I think that the story of Father Mulledy's decision tells us a lot about how deeply entwined slavery was in all sectors of the nation at that period.

MONTAGNE: And where these slaves were being sent, Louisiana - what were the conditions that they might've expected there?

CHATELAIN: Well, Louisiana was known to be particularly nefarious within a nefarious system of the slave trade. And so we know that some of the slaves would be sold again. We know that they would be toiling in incredibly difficult situations. And we would know that what passed as benevolence at the time was probably not going to greet them when they got to Louisiana.

MONTAGNE: And that turned out to be the case.

CHATELAIN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You know, I just wonder. You are quite close to this story, being at Georgetown and also because you specialize in African-American studies. I just found it so deeply sad reading some of the stories gleaned from this. What about you?

CHATELAIN: Well, as a black Catholic and as a professor at Georgetown University, what I see in all of these stories is exactly that - a great deal of pain. And I think what gives me a lot of joy is to see the way that our community hasn't shied away from that pain.

And I hope that this process is really helping other institutions continue to do this type of work. And for us to really reconsider - what does it mean to be a university where we can actually be part of the mechanism toward healing?

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us and talking about this.

CHATELAIN: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Marcia Chatelain is a professor of history at Georgetown University. And she served on the university's Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.