MARINGOUIN, La. — The rental car sped past acres of farmland and across a muddy bayou to an old plantation rippling with sugar cane. Stepping out was John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, who was on the most unusual journey of his tenure.
Nearly two centuries ago, scores of slaves were shipped here in a salethat helped save Georgetown from financial ruin. Last month, Mr. DeGioia stood in the cane fields where they once labored, visited the cemetery where they buried their dead and met for hours with their descendants.
Mr. DeGioia oversees one of the nation’s elite universities, managing more than 17,500 degree-seeking students; campuses in Washington and Doha, Qatar; and an endowment of about $1.5 billion. But on this scorching summer day, his mission was to help Georgetown begin the uneasy process of reckoning with its past.
“I think all of us need to get it right this time,” Mr. DeGioia said as he stood beside Maxine Crump, whose great-great-grandfather was sold in 1838 along with 271 other enslaved African-Americans.
College presidents are increasingly grappling with the legacy of slavery as student protests and scholarly research illuminate how many universities participated in and profited from the domestic slave trade. In March, Harvard’s president described the institution as “directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage” and days later commemorated four slaves who had worked in the households of two of its early leaders.
In April, representatives from a consortium of nearly 20 colleges — including the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and Roanoke College — met to discuss their efforts to study and memorialize the enslaved blacks whose forced labor on campus had been mostly forgotten.
The new initiatives have been greeted with both cheers and consternation. Some applaud efforts to bring a largely untold history to light. Others argue that the focus on the past exacerbates racial tensions on campuses and distracts from more pressing matters.
“People said it’s not enough or it’s too late or there should have been a different take,” said Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, describing the range of reactions to her proposals, which she said were generally well received. She has convened a committee of historians to identify university sites linked to this history and will host a national conference on universities and slavery next year.
“What’s difficult about it is that we want this discussion to be one that ultimately unifies and doesn’t divide,” Dr. Faust said of the conundrum facing many of her peers.
At Georgetown, founded by Jesuit priests in 1789, Mr. DeGioia contends that his university will not overcome its past without addressing and making amends for its role in slavery, which he often describes as the nation’s “original evil.”
Over the past several weeks, he has traveled to Spokane, Wash.; New Orleans; Baton Rouge, La.; and the rural Louisiana community of Maringouin to meet with dozens of descendants of the slaves who were sold.
He has also addressed alumni on the subject, convening a panel to discuss the efforts of his working group on slavery. The group spent months studying the university’s history and weighing whether Georgetown should apologize for profiting from slavery, create a memorial to the slaves and offer scholarships to their descendants, among other options. Historians believe this is the first time that the president of an elite university has met with the descendants of slaves who had labored on a college campus or were sold to benefit one. The working group’s report is expected to be released this summer.
Several faculty members and administrators described the reaction to Mr. DeGioia’s efforts as overwhelmingly positive, pointing out that he is also creating the university’s first department of African-American studies and a center for researching racial injustice.
“I think he’s a very moral man and I think he sees a moral obligation in this,” Maurice Jackson, a historian at the university and a member of the working group on slavery, said of Mr. DeGioia, who is a practicing Catholic. “He wanted us to get together, to effect change and to use the past to make the present better.”
But some alumni have voiced concern that by focusing on the wrongs of the 19th century, Mr. DeGioia is unnecessarily besmirching the reputation of a venerable institution. His decision to support student protesters and the members of his working group who called for renaming two buildings on campus raised eyebrows among some graduates.
Even some members of his executive board, which supports Mr. DeGioia’s efforts to address Georgetown’s history, raised questions at first. The buildings had carried the names of the two Georgetown presidents who organized the slave sale in 1838.
“People have had questions: Where are we going with this? Are we going to be changing the names of every building?” said Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner of the National Football League and the vice chairman of the university’s board.
Mr. Tagliabue, who described Mr. DeGioia as a leader who prides himself on building consensus, said the college president answered the questions. “Everyone gets it,” he said, referring to fellow board members.
Mr. DeGioia, who at age 59 is Georgetown’s longest-serving president, said he knew there were lingering doubts among some alumni. “‘Why is there a need to resurface the pain and the agony of this part of our history?’” he said, recalling their concerns. “‘Haven’t we moved beyond this?’”
But he said that the nation’s racial divisions, highlighted by the string of killings of black men by the police and persistent racial disparities, suggested that Americans have yet to come to terms with their roots in legalized discrimination and slavery.
“I don’t think we can say we’ve sufficiently moved beyond it,” said Mr. DeGioia, who became the university’s first lay president in 2001.
Georgetown relied on enslaved labor for decades. The Jesuit priests, who owned the slaves and ran the college, used their plantations in Maryland to help finance operations. And the institution’s portion of the slave sale’s profits — about $500,000 in today’s dollars — helped pay off Georgetown’s debts.
In August, Mr. DeGioia announced the creation of his working group and called for a campuswide discussion about slavery after reopening a building named after one of the early presidents involved in the slave sale. After student protests in November, a Georgetown alumnus, Richard J. Cellini, established the Georgetown Memory Project and hired a team of genealogists to identify and locate the descendants of the people who had been sold.
Last month, dozens of those descendants gathered to meet with Mr. DeGioia. Some brought older relatives and photographs of grandparents and great-grandparents. Ms. Crump and her siblings invited him to their family home here, where he fielded questions over cold lemonade and spicy jambalaya.
“It means so much to me to have this door opened to my past,” Ms. Crump said.
Most people welcomed him warmly, but there were also flashes of anger, Mr. DeGioia said, and some skepticism. Sandra Green Thomas, who met with Mr. DeGioia in New Orleans, noted that he was short on specifics about how — or whether — he would make tangible amends to descendants by offering them scholarships or financing other educational opportunities.
“Is this a way to pat us on the head and send us on our way?” she wondered. “Or is this a way to do something really meaningful?”
Mr. DeGioia said he was just beginning the process of engaging with families and addressing their concerns. He told the descendants that he hoped Georgetown could help reknit families torn apart by the sale, providing them with access to records about the Jesuit slaves in the university archives and possibly hosting a gathering of descendants on campus.
Jessica Tilson wanted something more. She asked Mr. DeGioia to issue a declaration of posthumous manumission, granting the slaves their freedom. Then she handed him several jars of soil.
She has been haunted in recent weeks by the knowledge that her great-great-great-great-grandparents died without returning to their birthplace in Maryland. So she dug up soil from the old plantation here — symbols of her enslaved forbears — and asked him to help her ancestors get back home.
Before he boarded his flight back to Washington, Mr. DeGioia shipped the jars to Georgetown.