Racial Justice: A Georgetown Response, Continuing the Conversation

Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Gaston Hall
Georgetown University
September 1, 2016

Good afternoon. Thank you all for gathering with us this afternoon, during this, the first week of our academic year. 

The framework for our program today: I’m going to offer some opening comments to frame our conversation. Then we’re going to show a brief film, which captures some reflections of members of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. I will then introduce the chair of the Working Group, Fr. David Collins, S.J., and then after Fr. Collins offers some reflections, I’ll come back and offer some reflections on the significance of this moment for our University community and articulate some of the work we need to do as we move forward.

As we open our event today, I wish to acknowledge and recognize the descendants of the enslaved children, women, and men of the Jesuit plantations and from whom our university benefited. Some descendants and their families have joined us here in person—some have joined online, and it is with deep gratitude and humility that I recognize your presence. 

Over the course of the past two years, we have met together as a University community to intentionally reflect on the significance of a distinctly American challenge: the enduring presence of racial injustice, tied to the institution of slavery in the founding of our country, as well as Georgetown's participation in that disgrace.

With the start of each academic year, we are privileged to welcome new members—students and faculty—who are new to the work of our community. 

I’d like to begin by describing our efforts over the past few years to engage the issue of racial injustice in our nation.

Two years ago, we gathered here in Gaston Hall—at this same moment—during the first week of classes, to reflect on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  We were joined by six members of our faculty who have provided leadership in the Academy in addressing issues of racial justice.

This launched a wide range of events and conversations—remarks by President Obama during a panel discussion here on “Overcoming Poverty,” Bishop Braxton, on race and the Catholic Church, and Director Comey of the FBI, on racial bias and law enforcement, as well as reflections by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and former Attorney General, Eric Holder, in conversation with Michel Martin. 

Last Fall, in a letter to our community, I also announced the establishment of a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

During this time, as we renovated a building in Dahlgren Quadrangle, named for an early president of Georgetown, we recognized the need to reconcile a painful part of our history: our participation in the institution of slavery and the benefit we received from the sale of 272 enslaved children, women, and men from Jesuit plantations in Maryland in 1838. 

The person responsible for the sale was then serving in a leadership role for the Society of Jesus.  His name was Fr. Thomas Mulledy S.J. and it was for him that one of our oldest buildings was named.  

In November of this past year, following the recommendation of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation and with the approval of the Board of Directors, we formally removed the name of Thomas Mulledy from this building, as well as the name of another Georgetown president of this period, Fr. William McSherry, S.J., from a second building. 

Throughout this past year, the Working Group sponsored a wide-range of events to engage our community in discourse about the significance of this moment, and the history of slavery—for our nation and for Georgetown. 

Neither building retains the names of those implicated in the participation of the sale of slaves in 1838.   

However, providing new names on our buildings reflects only one step in our work to acknowledge this history and its consequences resonating today. 

Much more is incumbent upon us, as Georgetown in particular, as a university more generally. As such, last February, I shared with you some reflections on Racial Justice in America—A Georgetown Response. 

At that time, I announced that we would be establishing a new academic department focused on African American Studies, a new Center addressing Racial Justice, a new senior officer, and the recruitment of new faculty positions commensurate with these new programs.

We have now launched the Department of African American Studies—which will be enrolling its first majors this fall—and we have announced a search to hire four faculty members to contribute to this work.

This work is ongoing, through the leadership of our Provost, Robert Groves, our chair of the Department of African American Studies, Robert Patterson (C’02), and Professor Gwen Mikell, Professor of Anthropology and Foreign Service, with a group of faculty, staff and students on the Working Group on Racial Justice.

Throughout this past year, as the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation conducted their related efforts, they sponsored teach-ins, lectures, campus tours, and conversation circles. 

In April, the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation held Emancipation Day events, honoring the day—April 16, 1862 when slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia—eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people in the Confederacy. 

Over the course of twelve days, fifteen events were held featuring such distinguished guests as our alumnus Edward Baptist (F’92), Kimberly Juanita Brown, and Craig Steven Wilder.

We continue in this determination today with the presentation of the Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. 

The Working Group completed its work over the summer and submitted this report to me.  We placed the report online earlier today and we will be sharing copies of the Report with you as you leave this evening.

Thinking about The Academy and Why that Matters to Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation

Every so often we are reminded of why we chose a life in the Academy.  Ours, institutionally, is a life directed by a purpose, a mission.  We are committed to the formation of young people; to the inquiry of our faculty; and through our institutional agency, to contributing to the common good. 

These commitments are animated by a set of values—as a university, to the values of academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression, shared governance; as a Catholic and Jesuit institution…in the case of Georgetown—and elsewhere, the values of respect for human dignity, of solidarity, of social justice.

We believe that there are ways in which we engage in our work.  There is a style of engagement, characteristic of the Academy, and particularly, ours. 

We recognize that we share responsibility for this place: for the tradition that has guided our lives together for more than two centuries; for the practices that enable this tradition to come alive.  We place extraordinary emphasis on dialogue—on listening to one another; on critiquing one another; on respecting the diverse range of methodologies and approaches that are embedded in our disciplines.  And celebrating dialogue itself.

Our style is often parodied.  Academics are perceived at times as too deliberative, that we establish committees and working groups as ways to evade and avoid tough decisions, that we hide in "theories."  Terms like “ivory tower” are not meant as compliments.  We are accused of not being a part of the “real world.”  No doubt some of these descriptions can be true. 

But time and time again over the course of my years here, I have witnessed extraordinary work emerge from groups of our community, working together, to wrestle with very complicated and difficult issues.  And such are those confronted by our Working Group.  How their work has unfolded exemplifies the best that universities—and ours particularly—can undertake.

For the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation is a model that instills faith in the ways in which universities approach challenges.  Their work has been exemplary—as fine an example of the Academy at its best as I have experienced.  Why? 

Because the Working Group brought an extraordinary sensitivity and empathy, and flexibility, to their task. 

They grounded themselves in the very best scholarship; they confronted painful truths in an unblinking manner; they sought to bring our entire community along on their journey.

The Working Group is an example of what is best in the Academy, addressing painful topics with both historic and present salience. 

On behalf of our entire community, I wish to express our appreciation to its Chair, Fr. David Collins, S.J., and to all of the members, for their efforts over the course of this past year and for the Report that we are sharing with our University community today.

Introduction of David Collins and Video of Working Group reflections

As I mentioned, we placed the report online earlier today and have copies of the report for everyone here—and, you can pick them up as you leave Gaston Hall.  We have also prepared a video in which members of the Working Group offer reflections on their own work this past year. Then, I’d to ask Fr. Collins to offer an overview of the approach taken by the Working Group and the key findings outlined in the report.

Following Fr. Collins’ comments, I will then return and focus my comments on three areas that emerge from my reading of the report that will require the continued engagement of our entire community as we move forward.  The presentation of this report marks the completion of the work of the Working Group but it by no means brings closure to our efforts. 

I will describe the opening of new work that will need to shape our community as we respond to the urgency of this moment for our nation and our university.

At the conclusion of my comments, I’d be happy to take questions from all of you.

Fr. David Collins, S.J., is a member of our faculty in the Department of History—having joined our community in 2004. His research focuses on the intellectual and cultural life of the late Middle Ages. Since September, he has served as the Chair of our Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

David, we are deeply grateful for your leadership, and the extraordinary effort of this Working Group over this past year. I want to thank you for your reflections this afternoon.

I invite us first to watch the video reflections of the Working Group, and then Fr. Collins will come up and offer his remarks.

Reflecting on the Working Group's Work

Thank you very much, David—and to all of the members of our Working Group. We are all so deeply grateful to you.

As I have engaged with the work of the Working Group over these past months, and in considering their Report, I now wish to offer some reflections:

I’ll frame my reflections according to three key points. I believe it is essential that our institution:

(1) ensure that understanding "our" history—that of Georgetown and, more broadly, that of our country—will enable us to humbly bring forth creative responses that strengthen our community—and stretch that understanding and response beyond our school, our history;

(2) to accept our responsibilities to the descendants of the children, women, and men, enslaved and sold to the benefit of our University, and acknowledge that they are, in fact, members of our Georgetown community;

(3) determine ways we can, now, through our institutional agency, contribute to both articulating and repairing the ongoing consequences of slavery in America.

I’ll offer some reflections on these three aspects that have emerged for me as central to our work.

But as I shared with our community a year ago when we launched this work: ultimately, this will be the work of our Georgetown community. Working Groups play essential roles in organizing, coordinating, integrating, and recommending actions. The presentation of this report is not intended to bring closure to our work.

It’s our intention to establish a framework for on-going work. With the presentation of this report, we are opening up to new avenues of work for Georgetown. This work will require the engagement of our entire community.

As we move forward, we will seek to engage you in reflecting on this report, and in subsequent projects that will emerge as we move forward.

Within the University, we have many formal structures to do this work, from our Faculty Senate to our Student Association, to our Main Campus Executive Faculty, to our Academic Departments. We have our African American Advisory Board, our University Alumni Association, our Provost’s Committee for Diversity, we have student-led organizations such as the Black House and Casa Latina, and so many others.

In recent months, as many of you know, we have come to meet some descendants—some of whom are here today. There are many more that we hope to meet. These individuals, and their families, have perspectives that we will ensure have a central place in this work as we move forward. We will engage them both in reviewing this report, and in our efforts as we move forward.

Acknowledging our history and ensuring it remains alive to us

First, ensuring our history is alive to us, we must acknowledge that Georgetown University participated in the institution of slavery.  There were slaves here on this Hilltop until Emancipation in 1862.  And we received funds from the Society of Jesus following the sale of 272 enslaved children, women, and men from Jesuit plantations in southern Maryland.  We have known our history, particularly because of the work of a former member of our faculty, R. Emmett Curran, who served as a member of the Department of History from 1972 to 2004. In a paper that he delivered at a joint session of the American Historical Association and the American Catholic Historical Association in 1981, he described Jesuit slaveholding in Maryland.  Over the next two decades Emmett produced the three volume bicentennial history of Georgetown and he provided further insights. 

In the 1990’s, Emmett, along with Hugh Cloke, taught a series of seminars in American Studies, and the two, together with Randy Bass, developed one of the early digital humanities websites, the Jesuit Plantations Project, which sought to make accessible crucial archival material for scholarly work.

But when I sent my letter to the community last August announcing the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, the most common response that I received was: “I had no idea the Jesuits had slaves.” 

There is a disconnect between what is known and what is alive to us—alive in a way in which we understand ourselves, our history, and our University.  This community participated in the institution of slavery.  This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here.  We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth. 

Even with such extraordinary scholarship, including others in addition to Emmett, so many were surprised, even shocked by the revelation of Jesuit slaveholding and the benefit we received from the 1838 sale. 

As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history.  We must acknowledge it.

As we move forward, we need to ensure we shape our self-understanding by recognizing and reconciling with our history.  We need to ensure that this tragic moment of our history can serve as a touchstone as we seek to achieve a deeper understanding of who we are, what we are capable of and what is demanded of us.  We can be blocked by our past or we can be strengthened by a recognition and a reconciliation with it.

The Report makes several recommendations that addresses this responsibility to acknowledge our history.

As David just shard with you, the Working Group recommended that the names of the two buildings that bore the names of Fathers Mulledy and McSherry, and then Freedom and Remembrance, should carry the names: Isaac Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall.  As David described, Isaac Hall is named in honor of the first person listed on the 1838 sale documents, the “Articles of Agreement.” 

We are still learning more about Isaac, as David described--Isaac Hawkins and his family. Everything that we come to know about him and his descendants will be appropriately memorialized in this building named in recognition of him.

Again as David described, Anne Marie Becraft was a Catholic religious sister, a heroic educator, a free woman of color who provided extraordinary leadership in creating educational opportunities for black girls right here in this neighborhood in the early decades of the nineteenth-century. 

I have accepted this recommendation from the Working Group. I have presented it to our Board of Directors who have approved the re-naming.

We will create a memorial to the 272 children, women, and men sold from the Jesuit plantations in 1838, and to the enslaved from whom we benefited.  We will establish a new Working Group that will support this effort of memorialization, one that will include identifying an artist who can help capture the significance of this event for our community. 

The artist that we engage will ensure that this is a “living” memorial that enables all those who follow us—that they will be able to have an awareness and understanding of the meaning of our participation in the institution of slavery.  We will engage descendants in the efforts of this new Working Group and in this process to establish an appropriate memorial.

We will also engage descendants in other initiatives related to memorialization. In the Report, the Working Group “recommend(s) the naming of scholarships in honor of those enslaved.”  As we deepen our relationship with descendants, we will explore this approach to memorialization.  We cannot presume, without the engagement of descendants, how best to ensure the appropriateness of approaches to memorialization.

The Report explicitly calls for an apology. The Report reads: “…the Working Group recommends that the University offer a formal, public apology for its historical relationship with slavery.” In offering an apology, we will draw upon the resources of our Catholic tradition, and Georgetown, together with the Archdiocese of Washington, the Jesuit Conference and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, will offer a Mass of Reconciliation, in which we will seek forgiveness for our participation in the institution of slavery and specifically for the sale of 272 children, women, and men, whom we should regard as members of our community.

It is my hope that such a step can begin a “journey of reconciliation” in which we engage our community—our students, faculty, staff, and alumni, along with descendants in what could be an on-going project.  Our Calcagnini Contemplative Center provides one venue: working with one another and with descendants, we can explore a continuing effort that could draw upon the resources of our Catholic tradition, including the examples of Saint Pope John Paul II, in supporting the work of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the Report, the Working Group makes many excellent recommendations that focus on Research, Teaching and Public History.  We began such an effort in February, as I described earlier.

The Working Group has recommended establishing an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown.  We will establish such an Institute and determine the most appropriate home for this Institute given the academic structures that will be in place.  We will strengthen support of our Library and Special Collections.  As we deepen our commitment to African American Studies, to establishing a Center focused on Racial Justice, and to a new Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, we will ensure our scholarly resources are commensurate. 

We have learned how deeply interested so many of the descendants are in knowing the genealogy of their families.  We can support these families by deepening the resources to support this genealogical work.

Our responsibilities to the descendants

Let me now offer some comments regarding our responsibilities to the descendants.

Members of the Georgetown community were not alone in their surprise to learn of the 1838 sale. 

Indeed, descendants themselves were surprised to learn of their ties to our school.  Over the past months, we have been blessed to come to know some descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were sold.  Some were connected to us through the efforts of an alumnus of Georgetown, Richard Cellini, who established an independent initiative, the Georgetown Memory Project. 

Over the course of this past year, one of the members of the Working Group, Adam Rothman of our Department of History, reached out and engaged with descendants.  In June, I had the opportunity to meet with extraordinary people in Spokane, Washington, and in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Maringouin, Louisiana.  I could not have been greeted with greater hospitality.  I was humbled by my reception. 

For in fact, there were two evils that took place in 1838: there was the sale itself, and there was the breakup of families.  This second evil was recognized at the time: Fr. Mulledy had received approval to complete the sale on the condition that families would not be broken up.  He violated this provision and had to fight to retain his vocation in the priesthood to his superiors in Rome.  

Today, we can support the work of descendants in re-connecting these families. We have very good records in our Archives.  There are more than 100 boxes of materials in our Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  We know the names of 272 individual children, women, and men.  We can help connect them to the families of which they were members.  And we can recognize our shared history and acknowledge our shared membership in our Georgetown community.

Regarding opportunity and access, the Working Group recommends, “descendants of those owned by the Maryland Province [receive] an advantage in the admissions process.”  We provide care and respect for the members of the Georgetown community—faculty, staff, alumni—those with an enduring relationship with Georgetown. We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants.      

Others have suggested that scholarships be provided for descendants. In our case, the commitments shaping access and opportunity at Georgetown—those commitments that we have here—provide for us an extraordinary framework in which to support students who are unable to meet the cost of attending Georgetown.  These are our policies of need-blind admissions and meeting full-need, which ensure that no undergraduate is prevented from attending our university because of financial need. This includes those members of our community who are descendants.

Let me mention a critical point here.  From time to time, at Homecoming and Reunions, we see on campus a banner that reads “Welcome home.”  What does this mean for us?  What do we mean by this metaphor?  It isn’t literal—each of us has a “home.”  What does the idea of “Georgetown” as “home” seek to capture?  Why do I speak of a "Georgetown community"?

In the recommendations of the Working Group, in conversations with descendants, there is a desire to be more closely connected with one another. We would never presume the kind of a relationship that any person may want with Georgetown. Each one of us has to determine the nature of our relationship to this place. Each descendant will decide, on their own terms, their relationship to Georgetown.

One of the great privileges of my life has been the opportunity to meet with descendants, and I am profoundly grateful for the kindness and generosity with which I was welcomed.  In some of the conversations we discussed inviting descendants to our campus for events and gatherings. In continuing conversations with descendants, we will determine the most appropriate ways in which to move forward.

There are multiple ways in which we hope to engage descendants in our on-going work of coming to terms with the meaning of this moment in our shared history.  

Following today’s event, we will arrange for colleagues to visit descendants in their home communities, in Louisiana, Maryland, and elsewhere, to engage in a series of conversations, focused on the report. 

We seek their insight and their participation as we seek to respond to the Working Group’s recommendation: “that Georgetown’s efforts to engage the task of reconciliation must be institutionalized, and personalized, for the long haul.”

Exercising our Institutional Agency

A final area that I’d like to address is the issue of addressing our institutional agency.

The Working Group writes: “We have also returned frequently to the question of reparations.  While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the University.

I believe the most appropriate way for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time.

There are specific actions that will require our enduring engagement and commitment.  Together, we will identify these actions. 

The issuance of this report does not seek to bring closure to a chapter in the history of Georgetown; instead, we are opening Georgetown to discovering new ways of being a university.  These responses are as much about the future as they are about the past.  While Georgetown was not alone in participating in the institution of slavery, and we cannot, alone, undo the damage that has been done—we will not shrink from our obligations and we will seek ways to contribute to building a more just society. 

The legacy of slavery, as practiced at Georgetown and, throughout the antebellum history of our country, has manifest and lingering consequences.

As such, there is a moral, as well as practical, imperative that defines this moment—that shapes the responsibility that we all share: how do we address now, in this moment, the enduring and persistent legacy of slavery—the manifestations of which are all around us? 

We need to address in our time the consequences of the original evil of slavery, which were never ameliorated in any previous time: they were not addressed by Emancipation, by Reconstruction; the legacy was furthered by Jim Crow and by systematic actions throughout the country to stymie African Americans from their rights as citizens and members of our society.  While important achievements can be recognized—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, we still live with the implications of the original failure to address the evil that framed the founding of our nation.

Consider just a few examples from recent news:

In a report of our School of Nursing and Health Studies, led by Professor Christopher King, prepared for the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, chaired by our own Maurice Jackson of our Department of History, released just a few weeks ago on The Health of the African American Community in the District of Columbia, consider the following:

  • African American men live 15 fewer years than their white counterparts; the gap for women is nine years; 1
  • African Americans in Washington, DC, are six times more likely to die from diabetes-related complications; 2
  • African American families are 3.5 times more likely to live below the poverty line. 3

Four years ago, under the leadership of Lucile Adams Campbell, of our Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Phyllis Magrab, of our Center for Child and Human Development, we opened a center downtown near the Navy Yard, the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, to address health disparities in our city. 

How can Georgetown in an ever deeper way, through this center, through our Medical School, through our School of Nursing and Health Studies, contribute to addressing these health disparities?

I’m teaching a book in my seminar this Fall, Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, a young sociologist teaching at Harvard.  Evicted seeks to identify the ties that bind us, rich and poor, in sustaining practices and policies that leave some inescapably mired in poverty; his focus is on housing policy and its systematic inequalities.  Desmond immersed himself in the city of Milwaukee, bringing a new approach to the study of poverty. 

To bring this close to home, literally, the following The Washington Post headline of August 8 captures Desmond’s insights: “As the nation’s capital booms, poor tenants face eviction for as little as $25.”

How can Georgetown, through our Law Center, our McCourt School of Public Policy—how can we contribute to addressing the crises of housing and homelessness at a very precarious time for so many here in the District?

In early August, the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the Institute for Policy Studies issued a report, The Ever-Growing Gap, which focused on wealth accumulation in our nation, with this finding: “It would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today.”4

Consider:

  • Average Household Wealth for African American households, here in the District: $85,000; for White households: $656,000.5
  • Average annual income for White families in DC: $101,000 compared to an average annual income of $39,000 for African American families;6

My son was assigned as required reading this summer prior to his sophomore year in high school, Bryan Stevenson’s, Just Mercy.  This is Stevenson’s account of his work through the organization he founded in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative. Consider the following passage of the book:

Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world…One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.7

I believe universities have unique responsibilities in addressing the current manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our nation.  Universities are among the oldest and most stable institutions in the country—many of us have had a continuous presence that begins before the founding of the Republic.  While our purposes have evolved, we understand our responsibilities now in ways that demand our engagement in addressing these disparities that can be tied to the institution of slavery.

There is a special responsibility for our nation’s universities.  We provide a context for the kind of work that enables us to understand ourselves, our practices, our societies.  We know the disparities, some of which I just shared with you, because of the work of folks like Christopher King of our School of Nursing and Health Studies, Maurice Jackson of our Department of History, Phyllis Magrab, and Lucile Adams Campbell, among many other members of our faculty.

But I think we have an even deeper responsibility.  A resource that was invaluable for the Working Group was the book, Ebony and Ivy, by Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at MIT.  The book carries the subtitle: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, and it chronicles the relationship of our nation’s earliest colleges with the institution of slavery.  Of particular significance is the role our schools played in the construction of the very concept of “race.” In attempting to extend the application of scientific principles to explaining the diversity of the American people, scholars of our universities provided explanations that had the effect of justifying enslavement of our fellow human beings. 

And while all of this may have occurred nearly two centuries ago, again, we live with the consequences today: the rigid, constructed, category of race has its roots in Colonial American scholarship.  Our predecessors may be responsible for these assumptions, but we now have the responsibility to address their manifestations: that a construct of race, with "arguments" for superiority and inferiority, justified slavery and segregation and which, even today, underlie, if not shape our very discourse.  We need a new language predicated on fair and just concepts that capture our understanding of ourselves and of our world. 

Our moral agency must be channeled to un-do this damage: race is a construct; it was constructed in America. We need to un-do this construct.

This is a moment to discover new ways of being a university—new ways of being Georgetown.  We must commit ourselves to exercising our institutional moral agency to addressing the continuing manifestations of the legacy of slavery and segregation in America. 

The disparities I described moments ago are evidence of this legacy and we must engage these manifestations with creativity and humility.  This could include:

  • identifying new ways, beyond the current models available in our nation, to enhance access and opportunity for those who are not securing post-secondary education in America;
  • supporting schools like Cristo Rey across our nation that seek to provide new pathways for securing secondary education;
  • building upon and deepening our current commitments and programs, working with our local community, with our local organizations, with our local governmental organizations that address disparities here in our nation’s Capital in education, in housing, in access to food and to health care;
  • seeking ways to address the economic inequities that divide our city;
  • ensuring we are examining and critiquing the scholarship that may contribute, unwittingly perhaps, to sustaining the disparities identified.

We can explore how we can become a stronger university opened to new possibilities by a new journey—a journey that will demand a new kind of imaginative engagement.  We must discover new ways of being a university—new ways of exercising our institutional agency.

This is a moment we must seize.  A decade from now, we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of our nation’s independence. The original fault-line—the constraining element—the original evil present at the foundation…the dependence on the institution of slavery was never ameliorated.  Not through the end of the Atlantic slave trade; not through Emancipation; not through Reconstruction. It was a full century after the end of the Civil War that we passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.  We still wrestle with unconscionable disparities.

Here in our third century as a nation, we have extraordinary promise waiting to be released. 

We have an opportunity to educate more of our people—only 40% of our population has completed post-secondary education: each person of incalculable worth, capable of bringing imagination, passion, and intelligence to bear on the social and technological challenges in our world.  We must find ways to expand opportunities for more of our people.

We can improve the health and the living conditions under which individuals and families flourish. 

We can build a stronger commonweal, where more and more of our people can participate in our political, economic, and social life.

But none of this can happen until we reconcile ourselves as a nation to the evil present at the creation: the institution of slavery and the enduring legacy of this institution now in the present.

There is an urgency to address this work now.  We will never fulfill the promise of this university…we will never fulfill the promise of this nation…we will never fulfill the promise of each one of us as long as this legacy remains unreconciled.  This is the work we must embrace in this moment. 

Thank you.


[1] King, Christopher, et al., The Health of the African American Community in the District of Columbia: Disparities and Recommendations. Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, 2016.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick, et al, The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African-American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth For Centuries. CFED & Institute for Policy Studies, 2016.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Reed, Jenny. Poverty on the Rise in the District: The Impact of Unemployment in 2009 and 2010. D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, 2010.

[7] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014.