Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation: How Georgetown’s Past is Shaping its Future

As members of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, Adam Rothman (History) and Marcia Chatelain (History) are doing what few professors of history are able to do—study the history of their own institution as the focus of their research. The two sat down with Eddie Maloney, Executive Director of CNDLS, for the opening plenary of the 2017 Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute to discuss what they learned and discovered as part of the Working Group.

In the summer of 2015, President DeGioia asked Chatelain and Rothman to join fourteen other colleagues from the Georgetown community to first engage with and learn about the history of the institution’s ties with slavery, and then later to make recommendations to guide Georgetown in its ongoing work. Chatelain talked about how this approach—first learning themselves, as few in the group are scholars on slavery, and then allowing what they learned to guide them in making recommendations to acknowledge and respond—set the tone for their work going forward. She spoke about the importance of understanding the context of slavery at Georgetown, how many higher education institutions, along with our nation, were built and maintained on the backs of slaves, and how crucial it is to acknowledge the contribution of so many, without whom Georgetown would not exist.

The core purpose of the Working Group is to teach the entire Georgetown University community about our history with the institution of slavery. While scholars and historians are not surprised by the Jesuits owning slaves, the average person is. Rothman discussed how the Working Group is helping to answer questions and meet people where they are surrounding this history.

The information wasn’t buried or hidden; much of it is housed within Georgetown itself. But Marcia challenged the audience, and our community as a whole, to remember that this is reality. It is both the history of a group of people—individuals and families—and the history of our institution, and it must be remembered. While this has not been the focus for many years, the current climate at Georgetown and in our country is allowing us to really explore and understand this legacy in ways that were not previously possible.

Because the Working Group is large and comprised of a diverse set of members from all around campus, it has been able to harness the ideas and methods of many different fields. This concept of many “points of access” is a principle that the Working Group members are trying to pass on to the community. Both panelists discussed how each of us needs to engage with this history, in whatever way we can to provide new and different ways of understanding; we need to be creative, bringing new and innovative methods to approaching the subject.

Chatelain and Rothman both gave examples of how widely varied groups and departments have begun this process, including Academic departments and faculty around campus: the Classics department translating original documents from archaic Latin to English; the McDonough School of Business using these documents to teach about ethics and reparations; Performing Arts using the material for plays and documentaries. As Rothman said, this history is too important to leave to just the historians or just the scholars. It is our history, and we have a responsibility to access it.

“We know a lot now, but not everything.” said Rothman, “We still have a lot to learn.” When discussing moving forward, they passionately agreed that more is yet to be done. The Working Group’s report should be the start of something ongoing, a way of thinking about and teaching this legacy that will continue and shape Georgetown’s future.

While funding is needed for things like new classes, digitizing the historical documents, perhaps creating a teaching fellowship devoted to the memorial, and a physical memorial, funding for these pieces is only one part of this work. What makes Georgetown unique, and a significant part of our identity, are the Jesuit values foundational to the institution. Engaging with the descendant families is part of Georgetown’s commitment to acknowledging our past, and Chatelain has found that one of the most important ways we can honor that commitment is by drawing on those Jesuit values when engaging in this work. We have to remember not to just act as an institution, like a bank or a corporation, approaching this with a set of rules and preconceived steps for attrition, but rather as people.

Finally, Rothman left us with this important idea: “As much as we could use a built memorial to the history of slavery here on campus, we need living memorials more. We need active engagement every semester, every year, that refuses to allow us to forget this story again.” The Working Group and its report are only part of this process, and part of this community. The 272 slaves who were sold are part of Georgetown’s story and legacy, and their history is our history. As we go forward, we should all consider how we are individually and collectively engaging with and are part of this process as students, faculty, and staff at Georgetown.

If you missed the 2017 Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) or would like to revisit a TLISI topic, follow along with us as as we feature various sessions on the Prospect blog over the course of the 2017-18 academic year. We’ll be sharing posts on the following themes: Teaching in the Jesuit Tradition, Incorporating Difficult and Timely Topics, Innovative Teaching Practices, Technology Enhanced Learning, Evidence-based Teaching and Learning, Inclusive Pedagogies, and Cross-Institutional & Cross-Departmental Collaborations. Many of the sessions were recorded and are viewable on Digital Georgetown (accessible by anyone with a Georgetown NetID). You can also find a links to all of our recorded sessions on the TLISI Resources page. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on posts and more!