Georgetown Holds Liturgy to Apologize for Historical Connection to Slavery

By Michael Wieczorek, Executive Assistant to the President, AJCU

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

On Tuesday, April 18th, just two days after Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia, Georgetown University held a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope to apologize for its historical legacy of slavery and to promote reconciliation. While the University did not directly own slaves, Georgetown benefited financially from the sale of 272 enslaved individuals by the Maryland Province Jesuits in 1838.

The Tuesday ceremony was the culmination of a multi-year process that Georgetown underwent to fully explore its past and determine how to reconcile a dark chapter in its history with the Jesuit, Catholic values that are central to its mission. In 2015, Georgetown President Dr. John J. DeGioia convened a working group to examine the history and make recommendations on how to acknowledge it. The working group examined the issues for about a year and authored a report recommending that the University apologize for its role, rename two buildings on campus, and engage with the descendant community. Georgetown has since followed each of those recommendations.

The liturgy was attended by leaders of Georgetown University, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, as well as about 200 descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits. The service began with a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” by local musicians. Sandra Green Thomas, President of the GU272 Descendants Association, gave an impressive, thoughtful speech reflecting on the injustice of slavery, the role of faith in the African American experience, and her life as a descendant. She closed her speech by saying, “So I return. No, we the descendants return, to the home place. To our ancestors’ home place, acknowledging contrition, offering forgiveness, hoping for penance, and more importantly, seeking justice for them and ourselves.”

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

Later in the ceremony, Mary D. Williams, another descendant, read a difficult excerpt from the Slave Narration of Frederick Douglass in which he pointedly articulated the hypocrisy of Christianity in his era, a faith that so willingly attempted to justify the institution of American slavery. Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, then made a moving apology. He said, “Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University, and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have sinned, we have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do. [...] We make bold to ask on bended knee for forgiveness. Though we think it right and just to ask, we have no right to it. Forgiveness is yours to bestow.”

Toward the end of the ceremony, President DeGioia spoke and apologized for the University’s role in the institution of slavery. He said, “We express our solemn contrition for our participation in slavery and the benefit [that] our institution received. We cannot hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore this truth. Slavery remains the original evil of our Republic.”

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

Photo by Michael Wieczorek (AJCU)

The weight of the morning’s service gave way to a more hopeful mood as Georgetown hosted a ceremony in the afternoon to rename two buildings in the heart of campus that were originally named for two Jesuits involved in the 1838 sale. The first building was renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall in honor of the enslaved man whose name appears first in the list of slaves on the sale agreement. Tellingly, the agreement listed only the first names of the slaves being sold, which was common practice for Southern slaveholders’ records. The Georgetown working group was able to verify Isaac’s surname through conversations with the descendant community.

The second building was renamed Anne Marie Becraft Hall, named after a free African American woman who founded a school for African American girls in the 1820s in Georgetown. The two buildings now stand in the same courtyard, a tribute to the dignity of enslaved African Americans and to the impressive contributions of free African Americans in the same era.

In addition to today’s events, Georgetown is undertaking several racial justice initiatives, including the creation of a Department of African American Studies, appointing a Working Group on Racial Justice, and granting special consideration to the descendants in the school’s admissions process.

Tuesday’s events generated extensive coverage in national media outlets. A video of the full liturgy and building dedication ceremonies can be viewed on Georgetown's website.