Once governments, institutions, and the public acknowledge past human rights abuses, it has become a common practice for the perpetrating entity (even if all the actual perpetrators are dead) to issue an apology, commemorate the victims, offer transparency, and in some cases, offer compensation. Usually this occurs only after the harm has been made visible by an outside group. This happened in 2016 to Georgetown University.
Georgetown University acknowledged (with some encouragement) that the institution sold 272 individuals as slaves to sugar plantations to keep the college afloat. A Georgetown working group, organized by the university’s president agreed to apologize, name a building after one of these enslaved men and offer descendants of these enslaved people priority admission. A good step. Sadly, as The New York Times pointed out, they did not offer to cover the cost of this education. So, these students could be saddled with $240,000 in debt at graduation. The school loses nothing; it keeps its money and boosts its reputation by showing a willingness to compensate descendants of slavery.
While rather stingy when it comes to compensation, Georgetown University made a move that could lead to a very interesting, and important response to slavery. With the African American Museum just blocks away from Georgetown in Washington D.C., the question of what to do about compensation for slavery hangs in the air. With the U.S. Holocaust museum just across the Mall, it stands as a constant reminder that some victims of slavery and persecution have been compensated in some way.
Money as compensation for violations
As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed over 80 Holocaust survivors about their thoughts on compensation. Man survivors received compensation in the 1990s or later and made comments like, “The money was nice, but it was after the war when I needed it.”
Many had no homes, no jobs, no bank accounts, and nothing to eat. France, for example was tremendously poor after the war. After returning to Paris from Auschwitz, Daniel recalls the bank telling him his family account was closed due to inactivity. Daniel told me, “I understood the bank had their policies, but it really hurt.”
The French, like many other, were quite poor after the war. People wore wooden shoes and used wood to fuel cars. People starved. Survivors lived in train stations. They needed the money then. (As did those freed after the Civil War.)
Some Holocaust survivors still desperately need money. Today, in Haifa, Israel a Christian organization cares for some of the very poor Holocaust survivors as does BlueCard in the United States.
But in most cases, the money arriving fifty or more years after the war was symbolic. Survivors told me they used the money for a piano, to build an addition on their house, to buy a locket for photos of murdered loved ones. In many cases, it was the letter of apology that meant more.
What's Better than Money? An Education
These hundreds of hours of conversation with Holocaust survivors made me think about financial compensation for irreparable harm. When I read the story about Georgetown, a new idea was born.
I heard an idea espoused during a book group dinner hosted by Dr. Sara Cobb, professor and Director of the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, I thought, “That’s it!”
A number of faculty and a few students were at Dr. Sara Cobb’s house discussing Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter about race to his fourteen-year-old son. Because a number of us study how societies can and do respond in the aftermath of human rights violations, we soon moved to the question of compensation for slavery
Sara Cobb thought the best solution would be to give three generations of all descendants of slavery free higher education.
Free Education for Three Generations
Dr. Cobb suggested this because this would not only be a recognition of the harm and a significant financial contribution to folks, especially those attending schools with tuitions up to $60k/year, such a program would help up-end the structural disadvantages many African Americans still suffer. African American men are the group most incarcerated. Their salaries and advancement remain far below the average white American. Slavery has ended, segregation has ended, but structural violence remains entrenched.
This issue is close to my heart because this fall I will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Negotiations and Conflict Management within the University of Baltimore’s School for Public Affairs. The school ranks high in social mobility. Many of my students, masters students, will be first generation college students. I am concerned about the amount of debt my students will carry upon graduation. I do not want them to be saddled with debt that holds them back. Many taking my class will be working full-time and have young kids. I will do my part by not wasting their time in the classroom.
I also love the idea of having three generations (starting NOW) of descendants of slaves receiving an education. I would love if the University of Baltimore had the endowment to offer this.
The idea needs to be worked through, of course. There would be many details to consider. Would it be for any college? Who would pay for it? At the very least, I believe in no age limit. If you’re 85 and want to go to college, good for you! It’s never too late.
Perhaps you can help us come up with some answers. My goal today was, with Dr. Sara Cobb’s permission, simply to share her brilliant idea and see how it may grow now passed on to you.