Descendants of Isaac Hawkins ask Georgetown to make full atonement for its past
Feb. 7, 2018
Direct descendants of Isaac Hawkins – whose name is listed first on the bill of sale of the 272 enslaved men and women whom Maryland Jesuits sold to save Georgetown University from financial ruin in 1838 – held a Jan. 17 press conference to mark the 180th anniversary of that sale, and to ask that Georgetown University make full atonement for their actions.
Those 272 enslaved men and women were sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana, where they endured “brutal conditions on cotton plantations,” said Georgia Goslee, the lead counsel for 200 of the direct descendants of those 272 enslaved African-Americans, also referred to as the “GU272.”
To open the press conference, Goslee stated, “The descendants I represent do not believe Georgetown has fully atoned for the wealth it unjustly accumulated off the back of unpaid black slave labor.”
The descendants at the press conference were Dee Taylor, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Vincent Williams, who currently lives in Georgia.
“Georgetown University owes its existence to the ancestors of Dee Taylor and Vincent Williams,” said Goslee. “Yet, restitution has been conspicuously absent from the actions taken by the school so far to reconcile with the descendant community.”
While they have had conversations with representatives from Georgetown University who were “the model of courtesy and diplomacy,” Goslee said they so far have seen no concrete action taken to provide financial restitution.
In April 2017, Georgetown University held a liturgy to offer a public apology for the institution’s past actions. On that day, the school also officially renamed one of its buildings “Isaac Hawkins Hall,” and another one of its buildings “Anne Marie Becraft Hall,” after a free woman of color who in 1820 established a school in Georgetown to teach young African-American girls. The university also established an institute to study slavery and offered to give the GU272 the same preferential consideration in admissions normally received by faculty, staff and alumni of the school.
While the descendants who spoke at the press conference said they were grateful for those actions being taken, Goslee noted that so far Georgetown’s actions did not include several measures that the descendants she represents would have wanted, such as scholarships for descendants or a compensatory fund.
Goslee noted that African American families in the United States are 228 years away from accumulating the same amount of wealth as white families in America.
“Meanwhile, Georgetown has become an elite, prestigious and wealthy international research university,” she said. “Consequently, the question today is not whether Georgetown can afford to provide restitution to the descendants of those who worked and died to save the university…the relevant question is whether the moral compass of Georgetown’s leaders will carry them to the higher ground of truly transformative justice.”
In response to this press conference, Georgetown University released the following statement:
“Since 2015, Georgetown has been working to address its historical relationship to slavery and will continue to do so,” the statement read. “…Following many conversations and dialogue with members of the Descendant community, the University and the Jesuits last week reached out to members of the Descendant community to propose a framework for long-term dialogue, partnership and collaboration.”
“Georgetown and the Jesuits are committed to working with Descendants in a process that recognizes the terrible legacy of slavery and promotes racial justice in southern Louisiana, southern Maryland and throughout the nation,” the statement continued. “We believe that this kind of collaborative, forward-looking approach is the best path toward reconciliation and responding to the challenges of racial injustice today.”
Thomas Craemer, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy, has worked with Hawkins’ descendants to calculate their monetary claim against the Jesuits of Maryland and Georgetown University.
To do this, he looked at questions such as: How much money was accumulated over the period the Hawkins family was enslaved by the Jesuits and Georgetown University; how much money could Isaac Hawkins have earned on the free labor market; and at what interest rate could Isaac Hawkins have invested his own savings and any inheritances he might have received from his own ancestors?
“The wealth gap in the United States between African Americans and White Americans is rooted in this reality,” said Craemer. “…Today, an African-American slave descendant can only indirectly benefit from an ancestor’s hard work by living in a powerful economy that received its start-up capital through slavery, while heirs of slave estates benefit both directly and indirectly.”
In June 2017, the descendants of Isaac Hawkins used the findings to submit a formal proposal to Georgetown about their desires for restitution, but have so far not received a formal response.
“For elder descendants, time is precious, and they have earned the right to demand meaningful action – not just words – from Georgetown leaders,” sad Goslee. “For younger descendants, whose wealth-building opportunities have been crippled by the legacy of Catholic slavery, restitution is a vital lifeline to a better future.”
Goslee pointed out that many of the descendants of Isaac Hawkins still remain practicing Catholics. Taylor said she has a “simple concept for life: God is the reason for it all.”
“How, in the name of Jesus, could the Church I grew up in commit such a hideous sin and bury the truth for so many years?” Taylor asked.
Nearly two years ago, Taylor found out through a newspaper article that she was a descendent of slaves and her ancestor was Isaac Hawkins. This inspired her to do more research into her family, and when she did so, she discovered that one of the people sold was only 10 years old.
“I have a 12-year old grandson,” said Taylor. “I look at him and think about that 10-year old…I can just see those babies on that ship, crying with their mothers shackled or left behind.”
Williams said finding out about his ancestry has “lit my consciousness and convinced me to keep their legacy alive.”
“We are their advocates,” he continued. “It is up to us to pursue that which is owed for their suffering…This duty weighs heavily on me.”
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