Georgetown was built on the backs of enslaved people

Reparations for their descendants are a necessary, imperfect beginning.

I  can’t think about this book without remembering the parable about blind men and the elephant. You know the one: after touching only one part of an elephant, each man insists that the elephant is like another object with which he is familiar, like a broom or a tree. It’s usually told to illustrate that clinging to a singular, subjective worldview limits access to truth. But I favor a more ambiguous reading: while a limited perspective is, well, limited, digging deep into what’s accessible to you can also speak to a truth too large to grasp all at once.

This idea—minus the elephant, of course—is at the heart of Facing George­town’s History. Georgetown University, founded in 1789 by Jesuit priests in Virginia, is positioned in this volume as “a microcosm of the whole history of American slavery.” As Lauret Savoy notes in her foreword and several authors echo throughout the book, careful study of Georgetown and other major American universities offers a window into the ways in which America and its institutions were built on the backs of enslaved people. “Entanglement with slavery . . . was never accidental or temporary,” she writes. “It was deliberate, invested and committed.”

Edited by Adam Rothman and Elsa Barraza Mendoza, this collection of academic articles, journalism, primary sources, and speeches largely succeeds in providing a comprehensive and nuanced approach for grappling with the history of slavery and the question of reparations—a feat made possible only through the book’s limited scope. There are flashes of the wider national conversation—Savoy’s introduction, for instance, and a reprint of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which takes not Georgetown but Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood as its lens. But these traces appear only often enough to ensure that readers never forget that Georgetown’s history is just a sliver of a larger problem.