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Georgetown students vote to raise tuition by $27 per semester to pay slavery reparations

The campus of Georgetown University
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On Thursday, students at Georgetown University voted to raise tuition at the school by $27.20 per semester to provide reparations to the descendants of 272 slaves owned and later sold by the school in the 1800s.

The vote was part of a nonbinding student referendum. Approximately 66% of students voted in favor.

"The university values the engagement of our students and appreciates that 3,845 students made their voices heard in yesterday's election. Our students are contributing to an important national conversation and we share their commitment to addressing Georgetown's history with slavery," said Todd Olson, Georgetown Vice President for Student Affairs, in a written statement.

Olson's statement indicates that the funds are intended to be used to advance "causes and proposals that directly benefit descendants still residing in underprivileged communities." Exactly how those causes and proposals will be enacted is still to be determined.

"There are many approaches that enable our community to respond to the legacies of slavery," he writes. "The University has made a commitment to further our efforts in dialogue and partnership with the Descendant community, seeking to promote work that draws on the inherent strengths and expertise of our community in collaboration with the Descendant and Jesuit communities and that promotes racial justice."

The move would raise approximately $380,800 per year from the university's 7,000 undergraduate students starting during the fall 2020 semester. For the 2019-2020 school year, Georgetown's undergraduate tuition is $27,720 per semester, or about $55,440 per year, making it one of the most expensive schools in the country.

Georgetown has one of the wealthiest student bodies in the country. According to analysis by The New York Times, the median family income of a student from Georgetown is $229,100, and 74% come from the highest-earning 20% of American households.

At its founding, Georgetown relied financially on profits from Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland. According to The New York Times, when the school was in need of funds in 1838, the Jesuit priests who founded and ran the college decided to sell the slaves on these plantations.

The sale of those individuals resulted in the separation of numerous families and forced hundreds into horrific conditions. It raised the 2019 equivalent of roughly $3.3 million for the school. Today, the school's endowment is valued at $1.66 billion.

"The school wouldn't be here without them," Shepard Thomas, a junior at Georgetown who is a part of the student organization that advocated for the referendum, tells The New York Times. "Students here always talk about changing the world after they graduate. Why not change the world when you're here?"

In 2016, Georgetown decided to provide admissions preference to the descendants of the slaves sold by the school.

"It makes me feel happy that we, as students, decided to set a precedent for the betterment of people's lives," says Thomas, who is himself a descendant of slaves sold by the university. 

Healy Hall, the flagship building of Georgetown University's main campus in Washington, D.C.
Mladen Antonov | AFP | Getty Images

The New York Times estimates that over dozen universities, including Brown and Harvard, have publicly recognized their ties to slavery, but few schools have taken measures like those at Georgetown.

Reparations have also become a popular political topic among presidential candidates — Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren each support some form of reparations research or initiative. On Tuesday, Booker introduced legislation to the Senate that would look into and study reparations.

"Since slavery in this country, we have had overt policies fueled by white supremacy and racism that have oppressed African-Americans economically for generations," Booker said in a statement. "This bill is a way of addressing head-on the persistence of racism, white supremacy, and implicit racial bias in our country. It will bring together the best minds to study the issue and propose solutions that will finally begin to right the economic scales of past harms and make sure we are a country where all dignity and humanity is affirmed."

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