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On April 11, Georgetown University students voted overwhelmingly to approve the addition of a $27.20 fee to tuition costs each semester to help pay  reparations to the descendants of the slaves the university sold in the 1830’s to pay off its debt.

It’s been a long time coming. While the university’s grim history has been known for years, it was only in 2015 that Georgetown President John DeGioia announced the formation of a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to “establish a dialogue on Georgetown’s historical ties to the institution of slavery.” That November, student activists staged a sit-in at the president’s office, asking that the university atone for its past. Demands that the university rename Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, named after the two men who orchestrated the sale of the enslaved people almost two centuries ago, and that Georgetown establish an annual program focused on education were among the students’ goals. In April 2017, the university publicly acknowledged and apologized for its role in perpetuating slavery and renamed the two buildings. Isaac Hawkins Hall is dedicated to the first enslaved person listed in the 1838 bill of sale. The Anne Marie Becraft Hall is named after a pioneering 19th-century black educator who opened one of the first schools for black girls. Georgetown also extended preferential admissions to the descendants of those 272 slaves.

Georgetown’s students have taken atonement to the next, appropriate level by compelling the university to redress past wrongs in a much more substantive way through a program for reparations, which are direct financial payments to the descendants of the enslaved. Though many universities have begun to study the role of slavery in their history, few have made significant strides in transitioning from research-based work to turning their findings into tangible action. If implemented by the university, Georgetown’s program will be the first of its kind.

“Leave it to smart young people to find a way to make amends for racism while the older generations continue to pass the bucks that fund the privileged.”

Leave it to smart young people to find a way to make amends for racism while the older generations continue to pass the bucks that fund the privileged. If college students can hold their institutional administrators to the fire, they can also put pressure on those vying to be the next president of the United States. To many black Americans, support for reparations has become a litmus test question for Democrats. A 2016 Marist poll shows almost 60 percent of black Americans support reparations, compared to 26 percent of Americans overall. Baiting black people for their votes with sympathetic responses, apologies and exploratory studies on the issue of reparations is no longer acceptable. Georgetown students have made the model plain: If presidential candidates are serious about reparations, they can sketch out a plan for a fund that will compensate descendants of the enslaved.

Georgetown students have hatched an incredible strategy: voting for reparations, one institution at a time.

Slavery is America’s original sin, one that the country has never atoned for. Slavery not only robbed Americans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it took away wealth from generations of people. Originally, the federal government had promised to distribute 40 acres and a mule to black families after the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, to distribute plots to families. However, shortly after black people began receiving titles to land, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order, returning the land to the Southern planters who originally owned it. Straight out of the gate, black folk had to operate with fewer resources and opportunities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Opening HBCUs with the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890, which called for the establishment of colleges for black students, didn’t level the playing field.

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Black people today still carry the financial, social and political burden of America’s racist past. Federal policies and practices such as slavery, segregation and redlining kept black folk from acquiring wealth, education and housing; black people still struggle to climb the socioeconomic ladder as a result. The Georgetown example, its past sale of people to pay off loans, makes it clear that the federal government isn’t solely responsible for the historical exclusion of black folk from critical services. Numerous institutions, including many colleges and universities, willingly participated in the suppression of black people for the benefit of white advancement.

Black students’ access to elite colleges is limited by white privilege, acquired in part through the advantages unjustly bestowed by enslaving others: more wealth, better-resourced schools, more discretionary income for test prep and tutoring. And, we recently learned, access is further limited by the lack of the financial resources to purchase with bribes an entree into elite schools that has not been earned by achievement.

The university is a start — now it’s onward to federal policy.

Former San Antonio mayor and presidential hopeful Julian Castor said he’d create a commission to establish policy. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill to explore the impact of slavery. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Beto O’Rourke all committed to studying the issue. Sen. Kamala Harris has said she supports some form of reparations, like mental health services. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s strategy doesn’t include financial payments. South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t believe a “check in the mail” reparations program would be perceived as being fair. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been cagey on the issue of reparations but is willing to support a study. The many other candidates more or less take similar positions.

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The usual response that reparations are too hard to figure out simply doesn’t fly. “You can use sound historical research to connect individual institutions to descendants of enslavement for purpose of reparations,” wrote Marcia Chatelain, associate professor at Georgetown University, in an email to The Hechinger Report. Chatelain is one of the advisors of the student group that formed the idea of a reparations fund. “The archive is deep and rich and we need to use it. So, the excuse that the history is too in the past to facilitate financial repair is not always the case.”

If students on other campuses can demand policies similar to those proposed at Georgetown, then candidates will have to move beyond exploratory studies. They will see the leadership of Georgetown students and be hard-pressed to avoid taking action.

How university officials will handle the referendum is still unclear. A day after the vote, Georgetown’s president released a statement that left the matter open. “With this strong indication from our students, I will engage key leaders in our Georgetown, Descendant, and Jesuit communities and our faculty, board, and student leadership to chart a path forward.”

Still, Chatelain, the associate professor, is encouraged that students will be the catalyst for change. “What the students did in terms of their ability to campaign around campus shows us the importance of leading with thoughtful information, connecting with people, addressing their concerns and working on the local level to facilitate change.”

This story about reparations was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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