Georgetown University has been asked to help raise $1 billion to support the educational aspirations of slave descendants who recently learned of their families' historical connection to the Washington D.C.-based university.
Some 272 enslaved men, women and children were sold in 1838 to settle mounting debts that could have forced the institution that later became Georgetown University to close. The Georgetown slaves ended up in Louisiana, mostly working at plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes.
Now, descendants of those slaves have asked the school to partner with them in a charitable foundation geared toward helping the school reconcile its involvement in the American slave trade.
"If you want to reconcile slavery, at the core, you do that through education," said Karran Harper-Royal, a New Orleans education advocate and one of several lead organizers of a group calling themselves the GU272 Foundation.
The group has specifically asked the university to help them raise $1 billion.
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The GU272 Foundation has already raised $115,000 in seed money, which they say the amount is equal to the sale price the Jesuits demanded for the 272 slaves.
Harper- Royal said descendants of the slaves started out in life with a disadvantage when compared to white kids, especially when it comes to educational opportunities, and need a helping hand.
"If you're going to level the playing field...making sure the educational aspirations of descendants are taken care of is the way to do it — and that should be done through the foundation," she said.
The group's plea to the university comes more than a week after its president announced the slave descendants would be granted preferential admission and possibly financial assistance to attend Georgetown.
The announcement included a long list of recommendations from The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. Among other things, the group suggested the university involve descendants in an oral history project and issue a formal apology for its participation and benefit from the slave trade.
Harper-Royal said Georgetown might not be a good fit for some slave descendants, which is why the foundation is trying to establish a process and system that "will take care of their educational aspirations regardless of what institution they choose."
Details of the 1838 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.
The university's president created The Working Group last year after a series of student protests called attention to the sale as well.
While expressing appreciation for The Working Group's recommendations and President John DeGioia's efforts to address the school's history with the slave trade, GU272 members have said they were disappointed they didn't have a seat at the table during the discussions about how the university would respond to the issue.
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"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," Joseph Stewart, another GU272 lead organizer, said in a news release. "Yet we firmly believe in the old saying, 'Nothing about us, without us.' "
Harper-Royal, and few other descendants, happened to be in Washington and attended a forum Sept. 1 where DiGioia formally announced the Working Group's recommendations report. There, she said, they presented DiGioia with a signed resolution outlining the goal's of the foundation and their desire for the university's involvement.
But as of last week, she said the group hasn't gotten a response from the university.
When contacted by The Advocate, a spokesperson for the school emailed excerpts from DiGioia's statements to the members of the GU272 who were at the Sept. 1 forum. The official also said DiGioia plans to engage with as many descendants as he can, including the GU272.
"The opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges...this is at the heart of what we were trying to be as a university," DiGioia said the Harper-Royal and others at the Sept. 1 event. "I hope what you heard in my remarks today in several different places were a series of invitations in which we know we can’t do our best work alone. And I look forward together to try to find the most appropriate ways in which we can engage in that work."
Harper-Royal said she's feel confident DiGioia will honor the university's commitment.
"I think they are carefully considering how to respond," she said.