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Who Gains And Who's Left Out Of Georgetown's Reparations Plan


Four thousand or so people are struggling with a difficult question right now. They recently found out that they are descendants of slaves who were sold to pay a debt owed by Georgetown University. Georgetown is trying to make amends.

Noel King from our Planet Money team has been talking to descendants across the country as they try to figure out what, if anything, they think Georgetown owes them and what they would accept.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: More than 4,000 descendants have been identified. That's 4,000 or so opinions on what should happen next. News of the Georgetown sale broke about a year ago. Scott Williams was at work, a Verizon store in Atlanta, when he got a call from his uncle.

SCOTT WILLIAMS: He said, hey, I've got some news for you. Are you standing up or sitting down?

KING: And then his uncle told him about the sale.

WILLIAMS: I was totally speechless.

KING: Scott is African-American so yes, he thought about slavery before but this was his own family.

WILLIAMS: It's almost like time stopped for a moment.

KING: And so you felt sort of stunned.

WILLIAMS: I was mortified.

KING: Why?

WILLIAMS: I felt like it was me. I felt like the situation happened to me. I felt like that call was telling me I lived in another lifetime and I was a slave. And then I was sold to save a university

KING: Scott is having a hard time with all of this. His shock turned to anger and then into certainty that Georgetown owes the descendants something. Georgetown has apologized. It's pledged to invest heavily in research and scholarship on slavery. But the big news for descendants - Georgetown will offer preferential admissions, a boost for those who apply to the school.

Scott has a son, Sheldon. He's 21 and would love to go to Georgetown, mainly because he's a star basketball player and Georgetown has a great basketball program.

SHELDON: If I was able to get into Georgetown, my wishes would be play for the basketball team.

KING: But his grades aren't great. He was at Central Georgia Technical College on an athletic scholarship. He's taking a year off because his GPA was dropping.

SHELDON: They call it a student athlete but I think I was more focused on the athlete aspects of it.

KING: Georgetown's offer of preferential admissions is probably not going to help Sheldon and he admits that. And it probably won't help most descendants - older people, those who have already gone to college, those who don't want to move to Washington, D.C., and those who don't have the grades. So what about them? Sheldon's dad, Scott, is part of a group of descendants that's hired a lawyer to see if they can get something else.

WILLIAMS: Something needs to be done and something needs to happen. The most significant way that something needs to happen is through dollars and cents.

KING: He says he would like Georgetown to cut checks.

WILLIAMS: They owe us money.

KING: You say it like it's a fact.

WILLIAMS: They owe us money.

KING: You say it like it's a fact.

And he knows some people will get upset when they hear him say they owe us money.

WILLIAMS: There are people who are going to be saying that's BS, slavery happened hundreds of years ago. Get over it and stop your crying.

KING: He says those people have a right to their opinion. And interestingly, his son Sheldon is sort of one of those people.

SHELDON: Something about, you know, asking for the money, something about that doesn't seem right.

KING: What about it to you doesn't seem right?

SHELDON: I want to say you could possibly be being greedy by asking for money, you know?

KING: This is one family - one father, one son. Right now, hundreds of families in hundreds of ways are trying to figure out an answer for themselves. What, if anything, are we owed? Georgetown has said it'll continue to study the question, too. Noel King, NPR News.


Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.