This year, Georgetown University made history by recognizing its role in slavery and doing something about it. I first heard about the decision on Sept. 1 while listening to the radio on my way to school.
“Georgetown’s among more than a dozen universities that have acknowledged their role in slavery in recent years,” NPR’s Jennifer Ludden reported. “A working group has spent a year trying to figure out how to make up for it. Its recommendations are not detailed, but giving slaves’ descendants an advantage in the admissions process is believed to be a first.”
In 1838, 272 slaves were sold to help the struggling university. Those 272 people are now gone, but their descendants have not forgotten what happened. Last November, students staged a sit-in at the university president’s office, remaining there until midnight each day for a week. They demanded that campus buildings named after early university presidents who approved the slave sale be renamed “Freedom Hall” and “Remembrance Hall.” Their demands were met, and the university offered preferential status in admissions to the slave descendants.
As a senior in high school taking classes at Georgia State University and looking at colleges to apply for, I feel that this is a triumph. Slavery, like race, has such an impact on how we live our lives today, and just like race, we do not like to talk about it because we fear conflict. But you cannot patch a racial wound by ignoring it.
So I set out to investigate — how does a nation heal?
I asked about 10 colleges and universities in Georgia if they would follow Georgetown’s lead by examining their own possible past ties to slavery but couldn’t find any that are taking that step. In an email response, a spokeswoman for Armstrong State University in Savannah told me this: “It is not Armstrong’s decision to consider (slave reparations) because we are part of a system, where decisions like this would be made. If the University System of Georgia makes the decision we would do as directed.”
I reached out to the University System of Georgia, which represents 31 colleges and universities, to see if it would follow Georgetown’s lead with slave reparations. They have not yet replied.
A majority of Americans are against the idea of slave reparations. According to a May 2016 national survey Marist Poll, 68 percent of Americans are against the idea of reparations, while less than half of millennials are against reparations. The report shows differences in attitudes and response based on race and generation.
Indiana University Professor of Law Carlton Waterhouse said he represents some of the descendants of the slaves sold at Georgetown and explained to me why more Americans do not support slave reparations.
“There’s still a system of racial hierarchy in this country, and so African-Americans tend to be at the bottom of that system of racial hierarchy,” Waterhouse said. “They [don’t] see African-Americans as worthy of reparations because the group’s status is so low.”
He continued, “A lot of it is subconscious. I think people react based on how they feel, and when you think about worth, often it’s kind of a feeling rather than an actual intellectual calculation.”
According to the Marist Poll, there is more support for slave reparations coming from private companies who acknowledged their role in slavery.
Civil rights activist Kathleen Cleaver is unimpressed with the “feasibility” of reparations. Cleaver, once a member of the Black Panther Party and known for her iconic afro and knee-high boots, now lectures at Emory University School of Law.
“Very few of these demands have been successful because they had no way of compelling the payment of reparations,” Cleaver said. “You can ask for anything, but if you have no way of compelling a payment, then that’s what you’re gonna get — nothing.”
Cleaver said describing the Georgetown decision as slave reparations is misleading.
“[Georgetown is] saying we did something in the past that was wrong, and now we decide to rectify that wrong,” she said. “Reparations more generally means payment to the actual people who’ve suffered the injury at the hands of a particular party, like after a war.”
I spoke to a few teens about what Georgetown has done. To my surprise, they had not heard of it. Many of the teens I spoke to referred to Georgetown’s decision as a step in the right direction and as something that could impact their own lives.
“Our ancestors can never fully be repaid for going through slavery, but I think that is somewhat of a nice gesture to help toward [the descendants’] education,” said AnJanae Wynn, 19, a student at Georgia State University.
Another GSU student, Brianna Brower, said, “Every other race has gotten something back for the things that have happened.”
“A lot of them got money from the government for the things America has done, except for African-Americans,” Brower added. “So that’s a good thing, that’s a good step forward in fixing the issue.”
Meanwhile, organizers of the Black Lives Matter Movement have released a series of demands which involve reparations in the form of student loan debt forgiveness, free public college education, and the restoration of black history into the curriculum and museums.
High school senior Ruqayyah Loftin, 17, said these demands make sense.
“I feel like African-American history, African-American everything, should be emphasized a little more because I feel like a lot of the things we started, other people are doing,” Loftin said. “We’re not getting credit for what we do, or you know, really, who we are.”
Loftin has added Georgetown to her list of colleges to look into because of their decision.
GSU student Anthony Jackson, 25, said what the Black Lives Matter movement is calling for sounds appealing.
“My dad can’t pay for college,” Jackson said. “I have to take out student loans and scholarships and things like that, and so knowing that, I know life as a graduate isn’t going to be as easy because the money I’m earning has to go someplace else. So, I think that’s definitely a hindrance to African-Americans.”
The legacy of slavery is still alive. We can choose to ignore it, to say this has nothing to do with us, but at the end of the day, our destinies as humans are intertwined.
I asked Carlton Waterhouse what teens can do bring about the change they want to see in how their history is represented.
“Young people have a lot of power that they don’t realize,” he said. “Young people can go to school boards and complain about books, complain about the exclusion of people from the books. The first thing they have to do is become knowledgeable themselves, right? So, young people have to become aware by reading and studying to learn about the issue.”
Maya, 16, is a senior at Warith Deen Mohammed High School in Atlanta.
This story was created by the #VOXInvestigates team and published at VOXAtl.com, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. For more about the nonprofit VOX, visit www.voxatl.org.