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In the fall of 1838, Jesuit priests sold their 272 slaves — including a 2-month-old baby — for about $3.3 million in today’s dollars, a portion of which was used to keep Georgetown University running and pay off its debts.
Founded in 1789, the D.C. school owes its continued existence to this sale, historians say. On Thursday, the university’s present-day students moved to begin making amends to the descendants of those 272 people by passing a referendum to institute a semesterly $27.20 reparations fee. It would be one of the first reparation fees at a major U.S. institution.
A student group called GU272 crafted and advocated for the bill, although it’s unclear if it will actually become a reality, even though it’s passed. University administrators applauded the students’ attempt to reckon with Georgetown’s history but did not say if it would implement the fee. Georgetown is a private university in Washington, D.C., and the oldest Catholic university in the U.S., even though many of its students are not Catholic. At its main campus, Georgetown enrolled 3,644 students in fall 2017.
The issue of reparations has been getting more attention recently, with a number of 2020 Democratic candidates expressing some degree of support for it.
"We value the engagement of our students and appreciate that they are making their voices heard and contributing to an important national conversation," Olson said in a statement to numerous media publications, noting that students "do not create university policy and are not binding on the university.”
Georgetown did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
GU272 estimates that the reconciliatory fund would generate more than $400,000 annually. The fee would be used for charitable causes to directly benefit the descendants of the 272 slaves and other people enslaved by the same Jesuit priests, according to the bill.
The university already formally apologized in 2017 to the descendants of the 272 and dedicated a few buildings in their honor.
Cover: In this Sept. 1, 2016, file photo, students walk past a Jesuit statue in front of Freedom Hall, center, formerly named Mulledy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. Freedom Hall was renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall on April 18, 2017, in honor of the first person listed in documents related to an 1838 sale of slaves in order to pay off the school's debts. The school and the group of Catholic priests that founded it apologized for the sale. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)