Undergraduate Reflection on Georgetown’s Legacy with Slavery

Posted in News Story

By Olivia Henry, Spring 2022

Olivia Henry is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying government, women and gender studies, and education. She also works at the Center as our Communications Assistant, conducting interviews with various alumni for the Alumni Spotlight series. Over Spring Break, Olivia attended the Magis GU272 Alternative Breaks Program, a self-reflective journey with the intent of empowering the descendants of Georgetown’s sale of over 272 people in order to reset historical narratives. Below is Olivia’s reflection on the Alternative Breaks Program and how these alumni interviews have shaped their worldview.

Over Spring Break, I participated in a reflective cross-country trip with the aim of dissecting and learning about Georgetown’s past history and current dialogues around enslavement. I came away with a far deeper sense of the legacy I stepped into as a Georgetown student. My work at the Center has allowed me to find connections between the work of various local nonprofit leaders and this weighty legacy of violence I walk in.

Over the course of this eight-day venture, we drove from Healy Hall down through Atlanta Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama, and Maringouin, Louisiana, our final destination at Ole Miss University. As we traveled, our window panes became movie screens for gentrification. While driving for a few blocks you could see dilapidated buildings adjacent to a lone, newly painted, modern apartment building with a bright red “For Rent” sign attracting wealthier incomers. At Georgetown, we had all been exposed to the language of gentrification, the process of “renovating” neighborhoods by attracting wealthier folks while displacing local residents, but to see such vivid examples of this process was striking, to say the least. The drive itself became a part of the experience, witnessing the very issues, like gentrification, nonprofit leaders are actively confronting.

Once we arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, we explored the Peace and Justice Memorial. The museum is incredibly new. Seeing exhibits of enslaved Africans straining under the rushing waves of the Atlantic, the pedestals enslaved folks were judged, bought, and sold upon, and modern testimonials of the veiled oppressions within carceral institutions, was emotionally and educationally straining. We then took a short bus ride to the outdoor Memorial for Peace and Justice, where we looked up at hanging rusted rectangular caskets as rushing water and creaking wooden floorboards were the only sounds left to be heard. One of the plaques delineated the Memorial as a sacred space, a space to commemorate those, named and unnamed, who were murdered at the hands of American lynchers.

Here, I found myself reminded of my conversation with Maurice Kie, who works at Life Pieces to Masterpieces. He spoke of the support he received as a kid through the program that brought him to today. He now gives back to the same organization that had his back, a cycle of generational uplift I could not help but reflect upon. His journey, one of breaking the cycle of intergenerational hardship through community support, seemed like the exact sort of engagement this Memorial demanded of folks. It is cyclical harm, perpetuated largely by societal institutions, that allows for the legacy of slavery to be so painfully experienced by Black folks in our country. Breaking these cycles, even in seemingly small ways, by replacing harm and isolation with support, gives me hope that these memorials and museums have meaning.

After our stop in Montgomery, we drove farther south to Louisiana. There, we traveled to the plantation city, Maringouin, where a large portion of those sold in Georgetown’s slave sale of over 272 people in 1838 was forced to work. This plantation was, simply put, huge. I was shocked by how isolated it was geographically, with swampy woodlands outlining the dozens of acres of land. We had the privilege to hear pieces of history from some of the Descendants of the sale, one of whom we met in Maringouin. Hearing the history of the land while walking along with the earth that her specific and our general ancestors as Black folks in America, toiled upon was emotional. I found myself recalling the Alumni Spotlight interview with Yaheiry Mora, where we touched upon setting roots somewhere. She spoke about her journey as an immigrant and how civic engagement was one way through which she found roots and community in America. This process of setting roots takes learning one’s history, the history of your community. As I walked on the soil that Black folks generations before me were forced to labor upon, I found myself craving to learn about my own history. This journey through the history of Georgetown’s past and present with slavery brought forth a desire within me to both amplify Georgetown’s history and connect to my own. As an undergraduate at the University who considers Georgetown their home, Georgetown’s history is one I also consider my own.

Following our trip to Maringouin, we traveled to the bayou, a hub of Southern culture – New Orleans. It was my first time visiting and I was overwhelmed by the history of the city. The street names, buildings, and overall culture had a strong sense of the past. The historical roots of the city ran deep, which became evident through our tours around the city and to local organizations like Ashe Art House. The organizations we visited and learned about were local nonprofits, just like the ones I have the chance to interact with at the Center. These organizations are doing direct community service work amidst larger structural problems. I was reminded of a conversation with Deena Frank, where she succinctly expressed the benefits and limitations of direct service. She mentioned, “Doing direct service work is powerful, but you also realize how limited you are in your impact because you’re working within a system that’s probably messed up in some way. You become drawn to ask how can I zoom out and address the bigger picture to create more change.” As our trip came to a close in New Orleans, followed by Ole Miss, I was drawn to see how I could address the larger structural and institutional limitations that make accountability for a violent history difficult. The institution of slavery and the process of “reconciling” this history is far from perfect. Collegiate institutions in the United States are just starting to learn how to go about holding accountability for their pasts with slavery. Seeing Ole Miss have separate, on-campus organizations lead tours highlighting the University’s past with slavery, was inspirational. Conversely, watching actions like the student-led referendum for monetary reparations largely fail at Georgetown has been disheartening, and listening to the stories of some descendants experiences with Georgetown even more so. This work, just like nonprofit work, has limitations because of systemic issues on an institutional and societal scale. It makes the work of accountability difficult.

On the whole, I am exceptionally grateful to bear witness to Georgetown University’s accountability process following this Alternative Breaks Program trip. Having the privilege to listen to the histories and lives of descendants of Georgetown’s violent past offered space for deep reflection for everyone involved. I cannot extend enough gratitude to those who shared their time and energy with us during the course of the trip. Thank you. A special thank you to everyone at Ole Miss University and the Blass family for all of your support throughout the week. Your efforts are not forgotten, and I am deeply appreciative of everyone involved.