Undergraduate students at Georgetown University voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of paying an additional fee to go toward reparations for the descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown in the 19th century, in what would, if approved by the university, be the first time an American university financially addresses its past as a slave-owning institution.
The “Reconciliation Contribution” would charge students $27.20 per semester to go toward a fund, directed by a board of students and slave descendants, that would support projects in communities where some descendants of Georgetown’s slaves now live. But a student vote is not a binding measure that sets policy for the larger university, and the administration has not committed to the fund. Instead, the university has said it sees the vote as “valuable insight into student perspectives,” according to NBC News.
According to the Georgetown University Student Association Elections Commission, which announced the results on Friday, of the nearly 60 percent of undergraduates who voted, 2,541 supported the measure and 1,304 opposed it.
In 1838, two Jesuit priests serving as the university’s presidents sold 272 people enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits. The university was mired in debt at the time, and the profits from the sale—$115,000, or about $3 million today, according to the Washington Post—allowed the university to stay open. Proponents of the measure argued that the sale split apart families and sent some slaves south to horrific conditions on cotton and sugar plantations and that the university’s debt to those enslaved people, and their descendants, should be addressed.
In 2016, Georgetown publicly recognized and apologized for its slave-holding past, and the university has since renamed the two buildings named after the Jesuit priests who organized the sale. It also gives preferential admissions (considering them as legacy admissions) to descendants of those 272 slaves. Four students are currently enrolled under that admissions policy, according to the Post.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have expressed support for some form of reparations nationally—or at least studying the possibility of reparations—including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg.