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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- John J. DeGioia, right, shakes hands with Johnny Harris, left, as DeGioia with visits Cornelius 'Neely' Hawkins' descendants and family members near Hawkins' gravesite in Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Cemetery in Maringouin, La., Thursday, June 30, 2016. In background, from left, are Walter Johnson, Ella Richardson, Brenda Cunningham, Doris Ventress Watson and Emanuel Harris. Hawkins, who died in 1902, was one of the slaves sold in the university's 1838 slave sale.

Travis Spradling

Some black students from Louisiana could be in line for preferential admission to Georgetown University and possible financial assistance as the Washington, D.C.-based university seeks to address issues related to its involvement in the American slave trade.

The admission preferences and unspecified financial assistance are called for in a report commissioned by Georgetown released on Thursday. They are primarily geared toward helping students attend the prestigious university who are descendants of 272 slaves the Catholic institution sold in 1838 to keep the school open.

Many of the enslaved men, women and children sold by the university wound up at Louisiana plantations.

Going forward, university officials said, those descendants will be granted the same legacy status and benefits that apply to members of the school's faculty, staff and alumni during the admissions process.

"I don't presume that I know what kind of relationship, in an ongoing way, descendants want to have with Georgetown, but I want them all to feel welcome and a part of the community," the university's President John DeGioia told The Advocate Thursday.

The recommendation to give descendants of the slaves preferred admission status was included in a report prepared by The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, a 15-member committee comprised of Georgetown University faculty members, students and alumni.

DeGioia said the report "identified a range of issues that require our engagement and effort toward building a framework to respond appropriately to many of the recommendations they made."

DeGioia rallied the group in September 2015, tasking them with recommending how the university could best acknowledge its involvement in slavery, examine the history of certain historical sites on campus and brainstorm opportunities for dialogue on related issues.

"While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of the enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the university," the reports states.

This saga began in 1838 when the Jesuit priests running the higher learning institution known today as Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved black men, women and children — mainly to absolve the institution of mounting debts.

The Georgetown slaves ended up in Louisiana, mostly working at plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes.

Details of the sale reached national prominence this spring after a series of articles by The New York Times revealed scores of descendants of the slaves were still living in Louisiana and scattered throughout various parts of the country.

DeGioia in July traveled to Louisiana to meet some of them. Many had no idea of the connection they had to Georgetown through their enslaved ancestors. As they researched their family trees after news of the university's sale of slaves to Louisiana's plantations spread, they learned of their blood connections to one another.

During his visit, DeGioia expressed a desire to see the university become a resource of information for descendants seeking information about their forefathers and for Georgetown to attempt to restore was what broken by its involvement in the American slave system.

Among other recommendations to DeGioia, the Working Group said the university should intensify its outreach to prospective black students, especially those living in Louisiana, and to increase financial assistance for eligible descendants of the Jesuit slaves.

Maxine Crump, a former Baton Rouge television news anchorwoman and one of the first descendants discovered from the 1838 sale, said she was encouraged by the report's recommendation that financial assistance be made available to descendants of the slaves who want to attend Georgetown.

"Of course, they haven't spelled out how it will be done, but it sounds like scholarships might be available," she said. "I look forward to getting more specifics because I have several nieces and nephews who would want to take advantage of that."

The average cost to attend most of the university's undergraduate academic programs is approximately $50,000 a year.

DiGioia said the university already has several programs geared toward exposing high school students to the Georgetown experience and helping them acclimate into the university's academic standards.

And he said the university's footsteps into Louisiana were made easier this year with the opening of Cristo Rey Baton Rouge High School in August.

"We have a deep partnership with the Cristo Rey schools around the country," DiGioia said.

The group also said Georgetown should involve the descendants in an oral history project and solicit their input as the university further explores how it will memorialize those sold in the 1838 sale.

"There is much to be learned from the descendants and their history, and Georgetown's history cannot be told truthfully and in full without their voices and perspectives," the report states. "Telling their stories is an integral part of the task of reconciliation and may help reunite a community that was uprooted and torn apart in 1838."

The Working Group criticized the university's current-day race relations, saying its student body and faculty lacks the diversity needed to have healthy dialogues about race.

DeGioia said Thursday he agreed with those findings and mentioned proactive steps the university is already taking to to rectify the situation through creation of a department for African-American studies, a Center for Racial Justice and taking more aggressive steps to recruit minority faculty members.

According to Fall 2015 data, only 6 percent of the university's undergraduate population were black.

"Indeed, African-American students, faculty, staff and other people of color do not feel universally welcomed and valued, and they often bear the burden on campus of carrying on the dialogue about racial issues," the group wrote in the report to DiGioia "We believe that significant funding, attention and resources should be devoted to assessing and improving the racial climate on campus."

Other recommendations included in the report were renaming two campus buildings in honor of two prominent black figures -- one of them a director ancestor of Crump's -- who were entwined in the university's history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The report also recommended creating an institution within the university system dedicated to scholarly research and curricular development devoted to slavery and the university and Catholic church's ties to it.

The report further recommends expanding and improving Georgetown's Slavery Archive, which became a valuable resource for descendants researching their connection to the slaves of the 1838 sale, and urges the university to issue a formal apology for its participation in the slave trade and benefit from it.

"I'm glad to hear them say they want to engage in the larger discussion around slavery and its contribution to the American economy," Crump said. "That's most exciting to me. There needs to be that acknowledgement that America's economy was built on the backs of slavery."

    

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