Georgetown University students hope slavery reparations vote sets nationwide "precedent"

Georgetown students back reparations fee

Last Updated Apr 12, 2019 9:35 AM EDT

Undergraduates at Georgetown University voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a $27.20 per semester "Reconciliation Contribution" fee to benefit descendants of 272 slaves sold by the school in the 19th century. Students at the country's oldest Catholic university hope the measure, which still needs the school's approval, will sweep the nation, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid. 

"We needed to affect change in the university," said senior Emilio Joubert. "We've all benefited from the sales of these slaves previously, and I think we have a duty now to show our responsibility and the fact that we did benefit from it." 

Georgetown's endowment today towers over $1.5 billion dollars, but in 1838, the school – deep in debt – sold 272 slaves to stay open.

In 2016, the university's president apologized. "We will seek forgiveness for our participation in the institution of slavery," Georgetown president John DeGioia said.

It's an institution that left this institution divided. 

"Georgetown students just need to recognize how much other people have sacrificed in order for them to be where they are," sophomore Maya Moretta said.

But opponents – like freshman Henry Dai – argue the effort to unchain Georgetown's past takes liberty from today's students.

"You say it's a slap in the face at liberty. What do you mean by that?" Reid asked him.

"I don't believe we should morally impose our values on other students," Dai said.

The conversation isn't only taking place at Georgetown.

"I believe it's time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country," 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren said in March.

Some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have come out in support of reparations. A recent survey found more than half of Democrats support studying ways to compensate black Americans for the impact of slavery. 

Georgetown offered preferential admission to their descendants – like New Orleans chef Melisande Short-Colomb – who came here as a freshman at age 63.

"Georgetown students are setting a precedent here by doing something that's never been done before," sophomore Short-Colomb said.

In a statement the university said they appreciate that students made their voices heard but did not say they will implement the fee. It's not clear when or if that will happen. 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated Georgetown renamed buildings for two slaves, but one was after a free black woman, Anne Marie Becraft.