When first walking onto Georgetown University’s campus, it’s impossible to miss the giant statue of a man sitting commandingly in a chair. This statue is partly known for the tradition of Georgetown students sitting on its lap while the Georgetown University Police Department is not looking, but the man it depicts has contributed far more to Georgetown’s history than just the Instagram pictures in which he’s featured. His name was John Carroll, and he founded Georgetown in 1789, around the same time the United States itself was established.
As freshmen, it’s probably more pressing to find out about the food in O’Donovan Hall, the best freshman dorm or the date of our first basketball game, rather than learn more about Georgetown’s history. Answers to the above questions can be found in this guide, too, but Georgetown’s 225-year history has more impact on our present than you might expect.
We consider 1789 the university’s official founding year, but Georgetown’s roots can be traced back to a school in St. Mary’s, Md., founded by Frs. Andrew White and John Gravenor, S.J., in 1634, when they were involved in the founding of the Maryland colony. Carroll purchased 60 acres of land on which to build his university in 1789, with classes commencing in 1792. In fact, the university’s iconic 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, which changed its name 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.
During the 1800s, Georgetown ran into certain challenges — namely, it’s relationship with slavery and the Civil War. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, enslaved people 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 enslaved people to a plantation in Louisiana, an event our community is still attempting to come to terms with and memorialize. In fact, last spring, the student body voted to create a semesterly fee that would go toward a fund benefiting descendants of the 272 enslaved people, also known as the GU272.
During the Civil War, 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 at the venue — and at the end of the war, Georgetown chose blue and gray as its colors to signify unity between the Union and Confederate soldiers returning to campus.
Since then, Georgetown has seen its fair share of historical moments. 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 during 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.
University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) became the first layperson to lead Georgetown in 2001, then became 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.
We know Georgetown’s history cannot be adequately summarized in one article, but we hope this article serves as a welcome introduction to the rich and dynamic heritage this school has witnessed in the past, and one we will all contribute to in the future.
File Photo: Amber Gillette/The Hoya