Simply Easy Learning
New Student Guide 2020

August 13, 2020

Seeing the History of Georgetown in Context

History colors the present, and the stories told by historians — whether they know it or not — have as much of an effect on how we see the present as they do on how we see the past.

Take Georgetown University’s Blue and Gray tour guides for example. They will tell you that we consider 1789 the university’s official founding year, but that Georgetown’s roots can be traced back to 1634 when Fr. Andrew White, S.J., and Fr. John Gravenor, S.J., founded a school in St. Mary’s, Md., while they were involved in the founding of the Maryland colony.

Conveniently, this story allows us to say we are an older institution than a certain Boston school, which the very mention of turns many of us Hoyas crimson. We can’t be blamed for wanting to see ourselves in that elite echelon or for starting Georgetown’s story in 1634 to afford ourselves some more prestige. That’s okay; the founding is a relatively benign story to tell. But it also demonstrates that our version of history affects how we see ourselves, and it suggests that sometimes we may be more concerned with favorable lighting than with honesty.

Finding impartial historical sources can be difficult, but many of Georgetown’s old photographs seem to capture individual moments candidly. One such photo from 1901 shows a strange and lonely Healy Hall standing atop the 60 acres of land purchased by Georgetown founder Bishop John Carroll, S.J., in 1789. The photo is angled at Gaston Hall, named for Georgetown’s first student, 13-year-old William Gaston, and it shows a football game in progress on a wide-open field that would later become Copley Lawn — but with no Copley Hall in sight. 

Lauinger Library

The photo is so alien in a way other photos of the school are not. In 2014, local journalist Topher Matthews of The Georgetown Metropolitan began colorizing some photos of old Georgetown Hoyas. 

One photo depicts the 1922 Georgetown baseball team — baseball is our school’s oldest sport with the first game dating back to 1866. The often-repeated story goes that the baseball team was named the Stonewalls after the stone wall in front of campus, and the team was the genesis of our school cheer, “Hoya saxa!” meaning “What rocks!” in a mashup of Greek and Latin.

Georgetown University/Facebook
The Georgetown Metropolitan

This colorized photo, and others like it, seems much less alien. These players could easily go to Georgetown today. It is more important than it might seem at first glance to feel this connection with past students on this campus, because it makes it harder to dismiss them as products of a different world, one that has no effect on our own. If we see the past as having no effect on the present, it becomes easy to pick and choose which parts of it we might like to honor, remember and let influence our present actions. 

This tendency is most clear when we look at Georgetown’s history of slavery. Throughout the 18th and early 19th century, enslaved people worked the campus grounds and contributed to the university’s day-to-day functioning. In 1838, after suffering financial setbacks, the university sold 272 enslaved people to a plantation in Louisiana. The sale of these men, women and children, now known as the GU272, was the only reason Healy Hall could even be constructed in 1877. 

After the sale of the GU272, Georgetown was able to expand, adding to its educational offerings over the next two centuries. It established the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1820, the School of Medicine in 1851, the Law Center in 1870, the School of Nursing in 1903, the School of Foreign Service in 1919, the School of Continuing Studies in 1970 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.

It took Georgetown over 200 years to apologize for the sale of the GU272, and in 2019, the student body voted to create a semesterly fee that would go toward a fund benefiting their descendants. However, the university administration has failed to honor this referendum. Still, it has made an effort to understand and educate students about its history of slavery, and Georgetown initiated community-based projects under the advisement of descendant communities last year as a part of its broader effort regarding Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. This summer, after Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation, University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) announced Juneteenth would become a university holiday. Energized by the growing national movement, student activists renewed their efforts to get the university to go further and implement the reconciliation fee.

Seeing Georgetown’s history through the lens of color is vital. The more we can use this lens, the more difficult it becomes for anyone to dismiss Georgetown’s history of slavery as having no bearing on the present or as a product of an alien world. As students, we are all physically embedded in that same history. One of the clearest reminders of this reality is our school colors, the blue and the gray, which directly reference the uniforms of the armies of the U.S. Civil War — a fact Georgetown tour guides tout as a symbol of unity and collaboration.

After receiving the first federal university charter from Congress, which is read at most official school ceremonies, the College — then the university’s only school — granted its first two bachelor’s degrees in 1817. The university would steadily grow in the run-up to the Civil War, but the student body remained entirely white, male and Catholic.

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 to speak at or visit the venue.

After the war, the school founded the Georgetown College Boat Club, which would later evolve into the crew team. However, at the time, Georgetown lacked school colors to wear during races so supporters could tell which boat was theirs. The Boat Club appointed a Committee on Colors that recommended the university adopt blue and gray to honor “the feeling of unity that exists between the Northern and Southern boys of the College.” 

Blue and gray remain integral to Georgetown’s visual identity to this day, and it is near impossible to be anywhere on campus without seeing these symbols of the Union and the Confederacy side by side. Some believe the gray should be erased; regardless, as long as gray remains, no one can dismiss it as nothing more than a nice complement to blue. The color is everywhere a constant reminder of the legacy of slavery on campus.

Around the same time as the adoption of the school colors, Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., served as the first Black president of Georgetown or any major university in the United States. In 1950, Samuel Halsey Jr. became the university’s first Black undergraduate student, and 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. Gradually, the student body began to diversify.

Still, Georgetown remains predominantly white, implicated in systemic racism, patriarchy, homophobia and bigotry and all the intersections therein. Georgetown did not even have an LGBTQ Resource Center until 2008, after student activists led by GU Pride fought the university for it in response to a string of hate crimes that year, and pride groups had to sue the university for equal recognition in the 80s. With this reality in mind, choosing a perspective from which to read Georgetown’s history becomes a fraught decision. However, seeing campus through the lens of color illuminates signs of historical injustice otherwise hidden in plain sight, the first step on a path toward repair. 

Hopefully, this university will expose you to myriad histories, narratives and lenses, but you will always be free to choose which you will make your own. Part of what it means to be a Hoya is taking that education and using it for good and for others. Being a Hoya means dedicating yourself to making your school better. The lens we use for history should be a lens that furthers the cause of justice, something Georgetown purports to take seriously, because we choose our lenses as much to color the present as to colorize the past.

Georgetown University

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