Georgetown University, one of the first in this effort, came clean about this history in a September 2016 report by its Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, modeled on the truth commission in South Africa.
In 1838, the school’s Jesuit leadership sold 272 slaves to finance the university but last year’s groundbreaking report emphasizes that the institution’s sins ran deeper.
“It was not the only, the first, or the last sale of slaves to provide operating revenue for the school, but it was the largest,” the 104-page report states. “This mass sale was the product of a complicated calculus on the part of the Jesuit leadership and an extensive controversy within the order.”
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia met with the descendants of those slaves last year in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Maringouin, Louisiana, as well as in Spokane, Washington.
“Over the course of the past two years, we have met together as a university community to intentionally reflect on the significance of a distinctly American challenge — the enduring presence of racial injustice tied to the institution of slavery in the founding of our country as well as Georgetown’s participation in that disgrace,” DeGioia said in a speech announcing the report’s release.
The working group offered diverse recommendations on reconciliation, such as rebranding buildings named after slave owners and offering full-ride scholarships to descendants of slaves as reparations.
Having met with Georgetown’s leaders, UNESCO’s Iye said that the university’s example is spreading throughout the academic community.
“Now, I understand that the University of Virginia is engaged in this, and I think there is more than 22 big American universities, which created a consortium to reflect on that and think of what kind of action can be that,” he said.
Harvard University is one of the institutions on that list.
Iye said UNESCO stands ready to assist government partners.
“In fact, we are working with American institutions — not yet, perhaps, municipalities,” he said. “Not yet, people who are the decision makers at the local level, but of course, that is for us the real people who should bring the change.”
The invitation stands. “Of course, we want to work with them,” Iye said, “and to see how we can also share some of the experiences that we gain from other countries.”
The United Nations released what became a blueprint for truth and reconciliation processes in a 2004 paper by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The document posits four pillars of the modern international legal system: international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law and international refugee law.
Such concepts helped shape the idea of transitional justice that is the namesake of Tolbert’s organization, but he stressed that no two commissions are alike.
“So we would probably push back against the idea that at least in general, that you would have one mechanism and one approach — and it would depend very much on the context,” Tolbert said. “What you would do in Syria is radically different than what you might do in Colombia or Tunisia.”
For such an effort in the United States, the government already has history from which to draw, if the political will were available.
President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the Kerner Commission the year of the 1967 rebellion in Detroit, and the police brutality and killings that followed it — now the subject of director Katherine Bigelow’s Hollywood blockbuster named after the city.
On the heels of similar riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark and other cities, Johnson said his commission sought to answer three questions: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"
Ultimately, however, the government never acted upon its recommendations.
“It was a presidential commission looking at violence based on race in the U.S., made some very solid recommendations and then kind of sat on the shelf,” Tolbert said.
Looking at the push to revisit these issues after the violence in Charlottesville, Tolbert said a grassroots movement could be fruitful.
“I think the first step is to very carefully understand the context of what has happened, the history, and connect very deeply with civil society,” he said.
UNESCO’s Iye noted that it was U.S. scholars who took the helm when it came to researching truth-telling on slavery.
“The first collaborators partners of the Slavery Project were American scholars and specialists,” he said. “You began before any other country, before Brazil, before Jamaica, before Venezuela, before Colombia. You were doing the work of telling this history.”
U.S. scholars continue to do this work to research the upcoming ninth volume of UNESCO’s “General History of Africa.”
“This is very important: Those claiming white supremacy and purity, and we are showing that nothing is pure,” he said. “Everything is a construction. Any culture is already the result of a mixture, and it’s only because we bring people from different areas, bring together what they do best that they advance.”
Born in Djibouti, Iye is a former journalist with a doctorate in political science. His work in international relations has taken him to Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and now France. Just as knowledge benefits from cultural exchange, Iye noted that the converse is also true.
“Each time a country or a nation or a community wants to reduce the plurality of the creation to one of its aspects, to reduce a plural identity to the color or the religion, it is the beginning of a tragedy,” he said.
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