We Choose to Remember: Legacies of Slavery

April 19, 2018

It began with a conversation at a conference in Switzerland: what is it like to be part of a university confronting an uncomfortable piece of its history?

The topic was Georgetown University’s efforts, and the efforts of the Jesuit Community that founded it, to confront the raw history of the sale of 272 enslaved people by the Maryland Jesuits to benefit the university in 1838. And it brought us to a fascinating event on DC Emancipation Day 2018, April 16, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and its Oprah Winfrey Auditorium. The event, built around the theme of remembering, delved also into themes of consciousness, forgiveness, and responsibility, and it took an ongoing conversation that has gripped Georgetown for several years some steps further. The discussions were punctuated by repeated questions from the moderator, Michel Martin of NPR: what is your assignment as you leave the event? What does it mean in terms of action? What should each of us do?

The answers to those questions were hardly conclusive, but there were glimpses both of imperatives and ideas of how to move ahead. Perhaps the dominant message was that the actors were key—the discussion truly turned about the impact on people. When did you learn what you now know? What impact did that have on you, at the time and thereafter? How did you feel? 

Memory and Reconciliation 

John W. Franklin has been part of NMAAHC from its early conception, and he is deeply immersed not only in the remarkable launch of what has become a national icon but on the underlying challenges and opportunities it represents. He and I had reflected on the complexities of memory and reconciliation, shared concerns of the museum and our university. With Georgetown’s Office of the President, the event focused on a broader coming to terms with the legacies of slavery, as history but also, as was emphasized repeatedly, as present.

The event itself involved two panels: the first focused on the history of discovery and confrontation of how slavery was indeed involved, the second about what this knowledge means for today’s realities. There were wonderful musical interludes with Nolan Williams, Jr., and the NEWorks Productions Inspirational Voices: the final song was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Living History

From Georgetown University, Rev. David Collins, S.J., and Dr. Marcia Chatelain went back to the Maryland Plantations, to the archival work (the fact of Jesuit and Catholic Church involvement means that the events and people involved may be the best documented of anything comparable). But what was most moving was their memories of the impact on them of knowledge of what had occurred. They highlighted the importance of leadership, by the university, and the fact of the Jesuit Community’s willingness to confront the past. The parallel histories of the University of Virginia and Rutgers University highlighted how far the role of slavery is embedded in universities’ histories, but also how difficult it is and has been to keep these issues at the forefront. It’s easy to face the facts but then move on. But the realities are living ones, not a historical memory.

Moving on to the second panel, Michel Martin commented at one stage that the entire room came together in love for Mélisande Short-Colomb, now (in her 60s) a Georgetown student and a descendant of the original group of enslaved children, women, and men sold in 1838. Her story of learning of the events and coming to know Georgetown and the Jesuits, past and present, was, to put it mildly, thought-provoking. Likewise Gayle Jessup White, who works at Monticello, told how she learned about her descent from Thomas Jefferson. There is nothing like a personal narrative to drive home a point, and in this case the point is the complexity and importance of memory and “roots” but above all the vital need to tell and understand history, not as myth but as it was.

A Spiritual Legacy

Brad Braxton (part of both the NMAAHC and Georgetown communities) gave a preacher’s fiery conclusion to the event. He echoed a theme that recurred often over the afternoon: the spiritual strength of survivors is a powerful legacy and memory. Remembering is not the same as forgiveness, and it is not always comfortable. The direct involvement of the Jesuit Community in the Georgetown history—in centuries past as well as in the present reckoning with the legacies and present implications—brought these spiritual dimensions to the fore in the event and highlighted how far they are interwoven in both the history and the present.

I just wish we could have bottled the event and shared the intellectual and emotional journey more broadly.

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