Recognition and Reconciliation: A Foundation Helps a University Confront Its Ties to Slavery

Lately, more universities have been confronting their historical ties to slavery.

In February, the trustees of Yale announced they will change the name of a residential college that honors alumnus and former Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was an ardent supporter of slavery. In early March, Harvard hosted a conference exploring the connections between slavery and early universities, including the Ivy League institution itself.

Then there's Georgetown University, which on the heels of releasing last year's recommendations of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish new racial justice initiatives on campus.

Starting in 2017, the grant will fund two faculty positions, two postdoctoral fellows for two-year appointments, two five-year Patrick Healy Graduate Fellowships to graduate students in the humanities, and a lecture series on racial justice. 

To understand the full context of this grant, we turn to September of 2015, when Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia convened and charged the working group to make recommendations on how best to "acknowledge and recognize the university’s history as it relates to slavery; examine and interpret the history of certain sites on our campus; and convene events and opportunities for dialogue." Georgetown benefited from the sale of 272 slaves to a Louisiana plantation in 1838.

The group's recommendations, which include renaming buildings, offering a Mass of Reconciliation, and "engaging with the descendant community in an active and sustained manner," can be read in greater detail here.

One of the working group's recommended next steps—"actively pursuing research and teaching, establishing a new Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown"—now comes into greater focus in light of Mellon's recent gift.

“A center for racial justice could also include an academic home for researching slavery and its legacies, as recommended by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, and is something the racial justice working group is exploring,” said Senior Director for Strategic Communications Rachel Pugh.

The Mellon Foundation gave its first grant to Georgetown in 1970 and has given over 30 grants to the school since then. This most recent grant, the largest ever to the school, falls within the foundation's Diversity Program, which aims to "support initiatives that diversify the faculty of higher education institutes and to help universities that strive to expand the attainability of education for historically underrepresented groups."

Mellon's Diversity Program, meanwhile, neatly maps to one of the foundation's six goals for liberal arts education, as articulated by Mellon VP Mariët Westermann last year. "We will continue to emphasize faculty development and curricular and pedagogic innovation in areas identified as priorities by presidents and provosts," she said, "including digital humanities and campus diversity."