Segment from Paying for the Past

Justice for the GU272

In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to pay off the school’s debts. Now, more than 175 years later, students are seeking justice for the slaves’ descendants. In April, students passed a referendum that would require each undergraduate student pay $27.20 per semester to a fund that will benefit the descendants of the GU272, as the original enslaved people have become known. Ed talks with Georgetown student organizer Mélisande Short-Colomb about the school’s role in reparations.

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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Nathan Connolly: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Nathan Connolly: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Nathan Connolly: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re all historians. Each week, along with our colleague, Joanne Freeman, we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Ed Ayers: Last month, students at Georgetown University accomplished something unprecedented.

Speaker 5: Working overnight, undergrad students at Georgetown University have voted to add a small fee to pay the descendants of slaves sold by the university in the 19th century.

Ed Ayers: In 1838 Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, sold 272 enslaved people to pay off the school’s debts. This group is known on campus today as the GU272. Now more than 175 years after the sale, students at the school have approved a fund to benefit GU272 descendants.

Mélisande S.-C.: Our thought was how do we make people care about this. So we decided that people care when they’re asked to invest.

Ed Ayers: Mélisande Short-Colomb just finished her sophomore year at Georgetown. She’s a descendant of two families from the GU272 and is attending the university as a nontraditional student in her 60s. She helped organize the student advocacy group that created the details for the referendum.

Mélisande S.-C.: Every student coming to Georgetown University will pay an additional $27.20 to their tuition. We decided to make it $27.20, which symbolically represents the original 272 people who were chosen to be sold. That money will go into a fund that will be collected by the university but dispersed by a board of directors made up of the descendants and students so we can form partnerships to help the descendant community in ways beyond what the university has offered.

Ed Ayers: Short-Colomb says that if every undergrad student pays $27.20 per semester that comes out to about $400,000 each year. But just because the students pass the referendum doesn’t guarantee that reparations will happen. Now the measure goes to the university’s board of directors. If it’s approved, it will be the first reparations policy at a major American institution.

Mélisande S.-C.: The university’s position is pretty much we’re proud of you, but we’re not obligated or bound to do any of that, so we’ll see what happens. Of course, we’re sure that there will be conversation about it. But the board is not obligated to act on the referendum immediately either.

Ed Ayers: Even if the referendum doesn’t get the green light from the board, Short-Colomb says she’s proud of the advocacy team’s work getting the word out on campus. With nearly 58% turnout, it was the highest recorded participation in a Georgetown student election. On voting day, Short-Colomb says there was an invigorating energy radiating throughout the university.

Mélisande S.-C.: The campus was buzzing. We had press spread out across the front of the school. People were talking. People were voting. We had a rally in Red Square. We were passing out “Yes I voted” buttons. It was very exciting.

Ed Ayers: Well, how late did it take for all the votes to come in?

Mélisande S.-C.: The votes came in. It was a 24-hour window of voting.

Ed Ayers: I see.

Mélisande S.-C.: God bless these children. All they had to do was open their computer and vote. I left everybody probably around 8:00. I’m like, “See you all later.” They’re like, “Are you coming over to the party?” I’m like, “Maybe.” It got to be around 10:00, 10:30. I was exhausted. So I went to sleep. I was like, okay, I’ll find out about this in the morning just like when I was a kid at Christmastime. So I’m knocked out sleeping. 1:15 my telephone rings. I answer the phone, “Hello.” And all I can hear is screaming, “We won. We won.” I’m like, “Oh wonderful.” “We’re coming over by you.” I said, “No, you’re not. Don’t you dare come over here. I will see you in the morning.” And that was it.

Mélisande S.-C.: So then I had to go and I had to look at the emails and everything that was coming in. I was happy and I think I cried a little bit and said thank you to my ancestors and I went back to sleep.

Ed Ayers: Were there people who spoke against it?

Mélisande S.-C.: Yes. There were some people who opposed the referendum. The opposition felt like it was not the responsibility of Georgetown students. It is the responsibility of the administration.

Ed Ayers: I see.

Mélisande S.-C.: Which is a valid point, but the administration has yet to make swift action. As the advocacy team, our position was who is the university if not students? If there were no students here, there would be no university. The sale and enslavement of our families was also for the university and for the students. So people come to Georgetown University from all over the world voluntarily because there is something to receive here that will make their lives better. We’re a class of students. We are four classes of students who are starting something that will be an endowment to Georgetown University for years to come. It is more lasting than tulips.

Ed Ayers: So the plan is not to spend $400,000 a year, but to put part of that into an endowment?

Mélisande S.-C.: Yes. This will be an ongoing process that cements the descendant community and the student body for the next 180 years so that in 360 years we will have been able to institute a complete circle of change from enslaving and selling people for the benefit of an institution to investing in a common goal for the future.

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Paying for the Past Lesson Set

Download the full lesson set.

Though the American Civil War concluded over 150 years ago, its effects still resonate in the social, economic, and political lives of millions of Americans. At the conclusion of the war, the federal government made efforts to rebuild the lives of former slaves. Though many of these “Reconstruction Era” efforts were well-meaning, they faced stiff opposition from former slave owners and politicians who did not want to enfranchise African Americans. As a result, many freed slaves faced generational socioeconomic hurdles preventing upward mobility.

21st century politicians and economists are still grappling with how to best address significant disparities in wealth and racial equality. One frequently discussed idea is the payment of reparations to descendants of former slaves. The goal is to properly fulfill the failed promise of Reconstruction Era policies and fight against systemic and historical barriers to advancement. However, these policies come in many different forms and are contentious for many Americans.

This lesson focuses on different aspects of reparations throughout American history. The goal is to force students to confront questions about how to best address ongoing disparities of race, wealth, and justice. How has the United States tried to address these questions in the past? Why has reparations endured as controversial issue in American politics today?