Georgetown University is a microcosm of America: built on slavery, unwilling to repay that debt and still maintaining our admiration and support. Georgetown University has an endowment of $1.5 billion. In its early days the school relied on Jesuit slave plantations to finance its operations. In 1838, however, the school was close to financial ruin. Georgetown survived thanks to the 272 slaves it sold to pay its debts. Student pressure prompted the school to rename the two buildings on campus named for the University Presidents who organized the sell. A school that owes its existence to slavery actually thought renaming two buildings was an adequate response to its past. Additional reparations are under consideration partly due to the advocacy of an alum who happens to be a white man and the CEO of a tech firm. Slavery financed Georgetown’s early operations, secured it future when it faced financial ruin and yet there’s a fight to push the school beyond renaming two buildings. Even so, we admire and support. That must change.
Georgetown is not unique in academia; even the Ivy League owes much of its existence to slavery. For example, Brown University had some thirty board members who owned or captained slave ships and donors who contributed slave labor to help construct the school. The Brown family owned slaves and engaged in the slave trade. Public colleges like Virginia are no different. But the American academy doesn’t differ from the American corporation. Companies like JP Morgan Chase are not exceptional; it is a tree with roots extending to two banks in Louisiana that served plantations (read slaveowners). Between 1831 and 1865 they accepted approximately 13,000 slaves as collateral, ultimately owning about 1,250. There are insurers like Aetna, who sold policies insuring slave owners against losses when their slaves died. The fingerprints of slavery are literally everywhere, from the academy to the stock exchange floor. Even so, we admire and support.
Whether the institution is Georgetown or a multinational bank, the standard protocol when confronted with the legacy of slavery is to downplay its significance in today’s prosperity and to present anemic solutions. Faced with its legacy in the early 2000’s, Aetna issued an apology but did not believe it had any further obligations. Further, the company has vehemently insisted that its profits from the slave trade were negligible, although they conceded that they could not determine the full extent of the issue, as complete archives were not available. JP Morgan Chase did clearly own their legacy but thought its $5 million scholarship program for black Louisiana students sufficient for a multinational conglomerate with over $2 trillion in assets. Like JP Morgan Chase, Georgetown is now looking at providing scholarships as a form of reparations. While the gesture is commendable, it certainly isn’t sufficient. Indeed, the legacy of those Jesuit plantations the school profited from means many black students are not even college ready.
Like so many institutions, Georgetown literally owes its existence to slavery. That the University thought renaming two buildings squared its debt is laughable and offensive. That Aetna and others consistently argue slavery played no significant role in their prosperity is offensive. That companies like JP Morgan Chase dominate the world scene thanks to slavery and offer peanuts as repayment is unacceptable. Institutions connected to the Holocaust dare not downplay its significance but slavery is apparently no big deal. That we still support these institutions when they excuse the slavery experience and their roles in it, however, is more problematic. When institutions downplay their ties to slavery, if we don’t walk we’re to blame. If they offer paltry restitution and we still do business with them, we’re the problem. When universities offer disgraceful apologies and gestures, if we don’t immediately lobby legislators to increase funding for our HBCU’s we’re to blame. If we don’t then start writing checks to those HBCU’s and other institutions committed to liberation, we should not be angry with anyone but ourselves. The slavery experience is far too easily downplayed by powerful institutions built upon it but black America is also far too complicit in allowing this to be so. The question isn’t necessarily what Georgetown and others owe but rather, do we have enough respect and love for ourselves to invest inwardly.
**This post highlights a handful of institutions that owe its prosperity to slavery. However, we will never know the half. Many companies simply haven’t been exposed as yet and for many more, the ties are far less obvious, though they are indeed present. It is only tireless advocacy that has brought us the limited knowledge we have on select American corporations and various other institutions.**