Most all faculty and long-term staff at Georgetown are familiar with the efforts of the working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation for the university to find its way forward with regard to its involvement in the sale of 272 enslaved children, women, and men in 1838.
Including Georgetown, there are 78 universities in the United States attempting to grapple with their history related to the enslavement of people of African descent. They are listed on the website of “Universities Studying Slavery.” Georgetown hosted over 700 registrants of the international conference of the institutions last week, which was filled with valuable exchanges among those working in the area.
The conference communicated the multitude of challenges universities face in addressing these issues in a genuine way. It’s clear that each university has a unique history, that they have different documents and other historical records that help them learn about this part of their past, and that there is great variation in their ability to connect the past to the present, either in places on the campus or through known descendants.
They all share, however, an institutional desire to document the past, to reveal it in meaningful ways for current members. Unlike churches, professional organizations, or other groups for which members have lifetime enrollment, university populations turn over at rapid rates. The undergraduate population has 25% turnover per year, the graduate population, dominated by Master’s programs, probably closer to 75% turnover per year. How does a newcomer to the university learn about this legacy?
How could Georgetown convey knowledge of its history in an effective way to successive cohorts of students as they enter the university? Below are some ideas.
First, the Georgetown website, The Georgetown Slavery Archive, is steadily becoming more valuable. It is dynamic, continuously adding digital images of documents and bringing forth new discoveries. It is a wonderful introduction to the history of Georgetown in this domain.
Secondly, there are new components of the New Student Orientation for undergraduates. We have a component labeled, “What is a Hoya?” which for some years was a way to introduce new students to all the resources at Georgetown, in order to enrich their lives as students as soon as possible. It was a way to learn how to navigate their new home. We’ve added instruction in the history of Georgetown’s connection to enslavement, by those in the community who are at the forefront of our work in the area. We could extend the depth and breadth of this instruction, no doubt.
Thirdly, there are courses that blend study of the history into the curriculum. For example, the course, Film Studies 399 (Social Justice Documentary), some Problem of God sections, and History 099 sections on “Facing Georgetown’s History,” have deeper lessons about the Georgetown experience. There are many other courses that have modules of their lessons related to the history. The ongoing reform of the diversity requirement of the undergraduate curriculum is another opportunity to communicate the history and make it relevant to Georgetown students in the 21st century. Finally, recently a faculty interest group shared techniques about how to introduce such components into a wider set of classes. A logical goal of such course developments is ensuring all undergraduates are exposed to the key features of the Georgetown history. We have work to do to spread these lessons at the graduate level.
Fourthly, a small group of students did an CSJ Alternative Spring Break immersion program this semester focused on our history and met virtually with members of the GU272 descendant community. That was student-led and organized, and hopefully it will continue. Student-organized and student-led activities, passed on from cohort to cohort could be a new feature of our culture to pass on the knowledge.
Dynamic populations, with significant entrance and exit volumes, can preserve key components of shared knowledge and culture only with intentional actions. These four sets of activities are examples of such activities. Our collective obligation is to foster their continuity and sustainability.