A Hoya’s Guide to Georgetown’s History

When you walked through the front gates for the first time, your eyes were drawn to a giant, climbable-looking statue of a man sitting commandingly in a chair.

You didn’t know who it was at first, but soon enough your chipper tour guide told you that the statue overlooking the front gates is John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown. Depending on whether your tour guide was a history major, you might have learned a little more about the archbishop of Baltimore who secured 60 acres of land to found the nation’s first Jesuit school in 1789.

But after John Carroll, you were probably more interested in learning about the food in O’Donovan Hall (called Leo’s in Hoya parlance), the best freshman dorm (answer: there is none) or what Brown House actually is, rather than knowing more about Georgetown’s history. Answers to the above questions can be found in this guide too, but Georgetown’s 225-year-long history has more impact on our present than one would expect.

We consider 1789 the university’s official founding year, but we can trace our roots back to a school in St. Mary’s, Md., founded by Frs. Andrew White and John Gravenor, S.J., in the year 1634 when they were involved in the founding of the Maryland colony. Carroll founded Georgetown in 1789, with classes commencing in 1792. The university’s 700-seat Gaston Hall is named for the first student, 13-year-old William Gaston. After receiving the first federal university charter from Congress, the College — then the university’s only school — granted its first two bachelor’s degrees in 1817.

Throughout the next two centuries, Georgetown expanded its educational offerings beginning with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1820, the School of Medicine in 1851, the Law School in 1870, the School of Nursing in 1903, the School of Foreign Service in 1919, the School of Continuing Studies in 1956 and the School of Business Administration in 1957 (with its name changed to the McDonough School of Business in 1998). The university further grew with the establishment of the School of Foreign Service’s Qatar campus in 2005 and, most recently, the McCourt School of Public Policy in 2013.

In the 1800s, Georgetown ran into challenges — namely, dealing with slavery and the Civil War. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, slaves worked the campus grounds and contributed to the university’s day-to-day functioning. In 1838, after suffering financial setbacks, the university authorized the sale of 272 slaves to a plantation in Louisiana, an event that our community today is still attempting to come to terms with and memorialize.

Because of the school’s location in Washington, D.C., students dropped out to serve in both the Union and Confederate forces. Enrollment fell to only 17 students between 1859 and 1861, and university buildings served as temporary hospitals and lodging for soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln spoke to Union troops from the steps of Old North in 1861 — one of 14 presidents, including Barack Obama, to speak from the venue — and at the end of the war, Georgetown chose blue and gray as its colors to signify unity between Union and Confederate soldiers returning to campus.

Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., served as the first black president of Georgetown or any major university in the United States from 1873 to 1882, though his mixed-race ancestry only came to light in the 1960s. During World War II, Georgetown housed the Army Specialized Training Program, a federal effort to recruit junior officers from universities. In 1969, Georgetown became fully coeducational when the College began admitting women, who until then had only been allowed to enroll in the School of Nursing.

Current university President John J. DeGioia became the first layperson to lead Georgetown in 2001, becoming the university’s longest-serving president in 2015. Under his leadership and that of his predecessors, Georgetown has grown from an all-white, all-male and all-Catholic local school to the diverse, competitive and internationally recognized university you are entering today.

By no means is this a perfect account of Georgetown’s history, yet we hope this serves as a welcome introduction to the rich and dynamic heritage we all have the privilege to contribute to every day.

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