SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to pay off a debt. Over the last several years, there has been a reckoning on campus as the school wrestles with its ties to slavery. It renamed several buildings that had honored people involved in the slave trade. Some descendants of that original group of enslaved people are now enrolled at the university.
This week, Georgetown undergraduate students voted to set up a fund that would pay reparations to descendants of slaves the school owned. Hannah Michael helped write that resolution. She is a sophomore, who joins us now from campus. Ms. Michael, thanks so much for being with us.
HANNAH MICHAEL: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And how would the money in this fund be used?
MICHAEL: So the referendum proposes a $27.20 fee added to the cost of attendance semesterly at Georgetown University. It's designated by five students and five descendants, who would be democratically elected. And they would utilize the funds to work on projects or initiatives meant to empower and support descendant communities - things like eyeglass exams, things like Internet access, paving roads.
So we included things like that as recommendations so that they're nonbinding in order to allow the descendants and students on the board to really sit down and to analyze the needs of descendant communities and to collaboratively come up with the best way to address those needs.
SIMON: You're a student at Georgetown in 2019. Why was this important to you?
MICHAEL: It's important to me because this university's modern existence is possible because of that 1838 sale. It's important to me because as an American citizen, I know that this country was founded upon the labor of enslaved African-American people. So to me, this is really my way of using the resources that I have to empower others - resources that I have because of the ancestors of descendants.
SIMON: Let me ask you a question I gather some of your fellow students have asked. Why should today's students, including African-American students, whose families already have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, have to pay to support a fund to try to compensate for sins that were committed 180 years ago?
MICHAEL: I think that what's been helpful is recognizing that while the university committed moral sins and should go through the process of morally rectifying that history, that slaveholding legacy, Georgetown students, as beneficiaries and members of the Georgetown University community, also have a similar obligation.
SIMON: This week's vote, as I don't have to tell you, was nonbinding. The board of trustees would have to implement it. I wonder if you've spoken with anyone on that board, have any idea how they're inclined.
MICHAEL: I think that there's a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next. I think that this is a really great opportunity for the board of trustees to move from dialogue to action because all they have to do is empower and validate the work that has already been done by students by allowing for this resource, this board, to exist.
SIMON: About a third of the students voted the other way. What would you say to them?
MICHAEL: I would encourage them to develop a personal connection with Georgetown University's slaveholding legacy. This isn't about punishment. This is not a punitive measure. This is about using resources, giving back resources. I think that once students really make that connection, it's actually really beautiful to see how empathetic and to see how compassionate a lot of Georgetown students are on this issue.
SIMON: Hannah Michael, who is a sophomore and activist at Georgetown University, thanks so much for being with us.
MICHAEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.