Students at Georgetown University voted on Thursday to increase their tuition to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans that the Jesuits who ran the school sold nearly two centuries ago to secure its financial future.
The fund they voted to create would represent the first instance of reparations for slavery by a prominent American organization.
The proposal passed with two-thirds of the vote, but the student-led referendum was nonbinding, and the university’s board of directors must approve the measure before it can take effect.
“We value the engagement of our students and appreciate that they are making their voices heard and contributing to an important national conversation,” Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, said in a statement on Thursday.
The undergraduate student body voted to add a new fee of $27.20 per student per semester to their tuition bill, with the proceeds devoted to supporting education and health care programs in Louisiana and Maryland, where many of 4,000 known living descendants of the 272 enslaved people now reside.
A 2016 article in The New York Times described the 1838 sale by what was then Georgetown College, the premier Catholic institution of higher learning in America at the time.
The college relied on Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland that were no longer producing a reliable income to support it, so the Jesuit priests who founded and ran Georgetown decided to raise cash by selling virtually all its slaves, receiving the equivalent of about $3.3 million in today’s money.
“The school wouldn’t be here without them,” said Shepard Thomas, a junior from New Orleans who is part of the campus group, Students for the GU272, that worked to hold the referendum. Mr. Thomas, a psychology major, is descended from slaves who were part of the 1838 sale.
“Students here always talk about changing the world after they graduate,” he said. “Why not change the world when you’re here?”
Mr. Thomas said the amount of the fee, $27.20, was chosen to evoke the number of people sold but not be too onerous for students. Tuition and fees for a full-time student per semester is $27,720.00.
Georgetown University agreed in 2016 to give admissions preference to descendants of the 272 slaves; Mr. Thomas was one of the first to be admitted under the policy. The school also formally apologized for its role in slavery, and has renamed two buildings on its campus to acknowledge the lives of slaves; one is now named for Isaac Hawkins, the first person listed in the 1838 sale.
The university has about 7,000 undergraduates, so the fee would raise about $380,000 a year for the fund.
“It makes me feel happy that we, as students, decided to set a precedent for the betterment of people’s lives,” Mr. Thomas said.