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Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Launches $400,000 Annual Fund to Support Descendants of the Enslaved

The Reconciliation Fund, which was inspired by an undergraduate student referendum in 2019, has begun accepting applications for projects that aim to benefit communities of Descendants, many of whom live in and around Maringouin, Louisiana, where their ancestors were sold and forcibly moved to in 1838. The projects could include health and legal clinics, environmental justice projects, after-school and pre-college programs and local history and memorialization projects. 

In partnership with the university, a student committee and an advisory committee of Descendants have developed the application process for the Reconciliation Fund. Both groups will also review grant proposals for community-based projects and make recommendations to university leaders, who will select the final projects. 

“The Reconciliation Fund is a collective effort — an example of our community’s deep commitment to the possibilities that can emerge when we work in partnership to advance reconciliation,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “This project is one way the university is reckoning with the legacies of slavery that have shaped our past and to respond by advancing justice and equity in our present.”

The university benefitted from the enslavement of people of African descent through plantations owned by the Maryland Jesuits through the mid-19th century and from the practices of slavery and forced labor that took place on and around Georgetown’s campus.

The Creation of the Fund

The university committed to creating the Reconciliation Fund following a student referendum in 2019. The project’s implementation was delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the university set aside funding for a 2022 launch. 

The Reconciliation Fund will provide $400,000 in grants per year to community-based projects proposed by organizations and individuals. The fund will prioritize applications that demonstrate engagement with Descendant communities connected to Jesuit slaveholding in the U.S., particularly the families who were once enslaved on plantations in Maryland and sold in 1838 to plantation owners in Louisiana. 

Award recipients will be chosen twice a year through an application process. Individuals and organizations are invited to apply for the fund, and applications are due by Nov. 25. The fall recipients will be notified in December, and details and timeline for the spring 2023 application cycle will be made available in January. 

To date, more than 500 alumni have provided financial support for the $400,000 annual fund.

Student and Descendant Collaboration

The fund’s application process will be managed by a Student Awards Committee, which began meeting in March 2022, and a Descendant Advisory Committee, which began meeting in the summer of 2022. Both groups will collaborate to review and recommend award recipients to the university. The Descendant Advisory Committee will also guide and advise the Student Awards Committee on the fund’s implementation and strategies to engage more members of the Descendant community.

Zac Colon (G’26), a graduate student who is pursuing his Ph.D. in neuroscience, is the vice chair of the Student Awards Committee. He has worked closely with the Descendant Advisory Committee to draft the project application and guidelines and identify organizations that could impact communities of Descendants. Colon says students “understand the urgency of now,” and that with guidance from the Descendant Committee, can help accomplish the Fund’s goal to honor Descendants.

Young man wearing a collared shirt
Zac Colon (G’26), the vice chair of the Student Awards Committee

“In order for us to grow as a society, we need to acknowledge and right the wrongs of the past,” he said. “I am privileged in my ability to be a Ph.D student at Georgetown University, but I believe it is my duty as a leader to make sure that Georgetown fulfills its promise to the Descendants of the slaves that the school exploited in its past.”

He also encourages more students to get involved with the Student Awards Committee and with the Fund itself. 

“My goal is that the fund and projects we award become a model for other institutions to follow to address the enduring legacy of slavery in America,” he said. “This is not a short-term mission. The more students involved, the greater chance that this fund will succeed and fulfill the goal to impact Descendant communities for years to come.”

“The more students involved, the greater chance that this fund will succeed and fulfill the goal to impact Descendant communities for years to come.”

–Zach Colon (G’26)
Man with a mustache wears a suit and red tie
Lee Baker, a member of the Descendant Advisory Committee.

Lee Baker, a member of the Descendant Advisory Committee, said he hopes that the fund is a “perpetual commitment of Georgetown” that invests in community initiatives such as mental health and well-being, the environment, economic development, conflict resolution, affordable housing, education and ongoing dialogue with communities of Descendants and community-based organizations. He also said collaboration with the Student Awards Committee offers a meaningful way for Descendants to connect with students individually and reflect annually on the legacy of slavery on Jesuit plantations and hopes for the future. 

“We are necessarily connected, and with intentionality, could create learning and other discoveries beyond our imagination,” Baker said of collaborating with students. “In other words, we anchor Descendants and Georgetown toward a future of immeasurable possibilities.”

A University Review Board, made up of university administrators, will receive recommendations about award recipients and distribute grants to the selected projects. 

Georgetown’s Commitment to Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation

Georgetown continues to engage in a long-term and ongoing process to more deeply understand and respond to its role in the injustice of slavery. 

The Georgetown University Library continues to digitize the Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus and publish items from before 1900 in DigitalGeorgetown, providing a valuable resource on the history of slavery and Catholic history. Library archivists have also recently improved the collection’s finding aid, enhancing the arrangement and description of the materials and making them more accessible to researchers and the general public.

Georgetown is also partnering with Michigan State University and the University of Virginia on a digital initiative that describes and provides access to the history of enslavement found in American college and university archival materials. The On These Grounds: Modeling and Sharing Archival Materials about Slavery project, which is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is led by historians and librarians from each university who are producing an open data model to be tested at each institution. Most recently, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rutgers University, the University of Georgia, Washington and Lee University and Hampden-Sydney College have been invited to help test the tool by adding content from their archives.

In addition to digital initiatives, Georgetown is committed to addressing its public history and memorialization on-campus, most recently in the Philodemic Room, a historic space on the university’s main campus and a longstanding home for the Philodemic Society’s debates. After student research documented how the Society’s historical connections to racism and discrimination manifested in the Philodemic Room, the university has been reimagining the space. 

Georgetown has partnered with the architectural firm SmithGroup, hosted discussions and feedback sessions, and engaged students, faculty and staff to redesign the space in a way that preserves its historic character, contextualizes its history and reflects Philodemic and Georgetown values.

This year, Georgetown also instituted a mandatory orientation for all first-year and transfer students on Georgetown’s history of enslavement.