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Georgetown University Works To Amend Involvement In Slavery


How does a powerful institution make amends for a terrible offense that happened almost 200 years ago? That's the question Georgetown University has been wrestling with. The school benefited from the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. They were shipped from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to Louisiana. The sale would have been worth more than $3 million today.

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson is a descendant of two of those slaves. She discovered this back in 2004 when she asked a genealogist in Baton Rouge for some help ahead of a family reunion. And she still has many questions.

PATRICIA BAYONNE-JOHNSON: Not a whole lot is known about them. For them and for all of the slaves at this point in our research, their life began in 1838. We have no records before 1838 - yeah.

JOHN DEGIOIA: And we think it will be possible for the university to perhaps dig even deeper, in support of the descendants, in trying to understand what happened, perhaps, before 1838.

SHAPIRO: That's Georgetown University President John DeGioia. He and Patricia met as the school worked over the last year to address the university's history with slavery. This week, Georgetown put out a 100-page report, recommending steps from increasing diversity at the school to preferential admissions treatment for the descendants. Patricia Bayonne-Johnson and John DeGioia came into the studio to talk about what this experience has meant to each of them and how they make sense of this history.

DEGIOIA: There were two evils. The first was the sale. The second - in violation of his orders, the person responsible for that sale, Father Thomas Mulledy - he broke up families. What we might be able to do now is help in the process of reconnecting those families.

SHAPIRO: Patricia, can you tell me about the bond that you've formed with the other descendants of the slaves involved in this sale? It is a strange thing to bring a group of people together.

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: Yes, it is. It is a strange thing. And I guess I really haven't thought very much about it. It's just that - I'm just so excited to have more cousins that I didn't know...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) More cousins. Do you consider each other cousins or, in some cases, you are cousins?

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: Oh, we are cousins by many cases. My ancestors Nace and Biby Butler - their children married into the other slaves that were a part of the sale. And so I'm related on many fronts. It's Hills (ph). It's Hawkins (ph). It's...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: It just goes - and the Butlers. I don't want to forget those, too.


BAYONNE-JOHNSON: And I'm sure there're more.

SHAPIRO: You know, this report talks about steps to address the specific sale of slaves in 1838. And it also talks about steps to address racism and discrimination today that might not be tied to that specific sale. President DeGioia, tell me about how you strike that balance and why you think it's important to do both and not just address the specific wrongdoing from the past.

DEGIOIA: We live today with the legacy of the failure to ameliorate the original evil of slavery in America. We need all of our institutions, but especially our universities, which are among the most stable and enduring institutions that we have, to accept responsibility right now. Unless we're able to reconcile ourselves to that history and ensure that we have a framework for full equity of all of our people, we will not be able to progress as a nation.

SHAPIRO: One theme that really stands out in this report is the commitment to Christian ideals, Jesuit ideals and the failure to live up to those ideals.


SHAPIRO: And a line that stood out to me was in the section that talks about renaming one of the buildings on campus for Isaac, whose name is the first name in the bill of sale. There's a line that says, finally, we chose the name Isaac because of its biblical resonance. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, as a test of faith. At the last minute, God spared Isaac. But in 1838, Isaac was not spared. He was sold.

DEGIOIA: Yes. This entire process, which we launched over a year ago to try to reconcile ourselves to this past, has been animated by our Catholic and Jesuit identity. We recognize that there was a failure of moral imagination in 1838. And we recognize our responsibility today, drawing from that tradition, to determine the most appropriate way in which we can make amends, in which we can seek forgiveness, in which we can seek reconciliation.

SHAPIRO: Patricia, having these deep family ties to Catholicism...


SHAPIRO: ...And also knowing that a part of a Catholic institution was involved in the sale of your ancestors, does that create a conflict for you? How do you reconcile that?

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: It created a conflict, of course (laughter). We were just shocked. You know, here's people - I mean, the priests - who were in charge of our salvation, who were involved in slavery. It was beyond a shock. That's all I can say. But it's been 12 years, you know, and so we've healed.

SHAPIRO: Since you learned.

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: Yeah, I - there's a certain amount of healing, but there's also a certain amounting of opening up old wounds.

SHAPIRO: Do you imagine what might have gone differently over the course of your own education, work-life experience, your personal history had these things been done 50 or 100 years ago?

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: I've been stifled in where I could have gone. I wanted to be a physician when I grew up, when I graduated from college. And I did apply to a school, but I was turned down. And I will never know if it was because of my race. So I feel that I probably have not been able to go as far as I could have.

SHAPIRO: One word that comes up again and again in this report is reconciliation...


SHAPIRO: ...Which means (laughter) a lot of things to a lot of people.


SHAPIRO: What do each of you hope comes out of this process? It seems clear that you're not trying to close the book on this history, but rather reach something that is described as reconciliation. What is reconciliation to each of you?

DEGIOIA: I'm hopeful for three things. First, that we can ensure that this history is alive...


DEGIOIA: ...For our community, which includes our descendants in a way that enable us to have conversations and engage in work, engage in projects that we would never have been able to do without this opportunity to be able to understand ourselves and our institution and our history in ways that we never have before. Second, I hope that - I hope that the descendants, as they become closer and closer to the Georgetown community, will find the resources that will enable them to reconnect their families and to find ways in which the university can empower them. And third, that together we can find ways in which our university can engage in new kinds of work, which enable us to address our responsibilities in this moment to addressing the enduring legacy of slavery in America.

SHAPIRO: Patricia.

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: When I started this journey, I had only one goal, and that was to tell my story. That's all I ever wanted was to tell my story.

SHAPIRO: It seems like such a simple thing that you want your story to be told. But then when you see the ripples that that...


SHAPIRO: ...Storytelling causes, it's really pretty unbelievable.

BAYONNE-JOHNSON: I never thought that I would be here today. I just didn't think it would have the impact that I see today.

SHAPIRO: Patricia Bayonne-Johnson and President John DeGioia, thank you very much.


DEGIOIA: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: John DeGioia is the president of Georgetown University, and Patricia Bayonne-Johnson's ancestors were sold in 1838. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.