*Mélisande Short-Colomb, at 63, just completed her freshman year at Georgetown University, where Jesuits at the school owned her slave ancestors nearly two centuries ago.
She had been working in New Orleans as a chef when Georgetown offered her and all of the descendants of the slaves a special legacy admission status. She now in Copley Hall on campus, in a room she has nicknamed her “tiny condo.”
According to CNN, she started off the semester “gung-ho” and enrolled in four classes, but then decided it was more manageable to drop down to three. These first couple of months have been about getting acclimated to campus, which, she said, hasn’t been easy.
Short-Colomb has four grown children and two granddaughters ages five and 10. She describes herself as a non-traditional student. She hasn’t joined any clubs, and doesn’t go to parties, telling CNN, “They aren’t my peer group.”
“Physically, it’s been challenging.” When asked about what has been most difficult to navigate, she instantly quipped, “hills.” She worries about her hips when makes her way back and forth on the campus that’s aptly nicknamed “The Hilltop.” And after catching a nasty virus the first weeks of classes, she avoids touching handrails in the stairwell and now sits with her back against the wall in class so that nobody can cough on her.
Professors have checked in with her to make sure she’s doing OK. One was worried she might get harassed, but Short-Colomb says she hasn’t experienced anything like that on campus. Everyone has been very nice and welcoming, she said. Her professors are working with her to figure out how to make this work, she said.
Short-Colomb also works 11 hours a week at the school library in the rare books section as part of her “work-study” financial aid program. She receives financial aid from the Georgetown Scholarship Program, and is also a grant recipient. Work is what she knows, she said, and she loves the familiarity of it. In an environment where everything else is new.
Below, Georgetown’s slavery background, via CNN:
In 1838, Georgetown University was in financial trouble and sold hundreds of slaves, including Short-Colomb’s ancestors, to pay off steep debts. The Jesuits of the Maryland Province, at the time the most prominent Jesuits in the nation, sold 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana in exchange for what would be about $3.3 million today. The oldest person sold was 80 years old and the youngest was just a few months.
Over the past two years, Georgetown has taken several steps to make amends for its participation in the slave trade.
The university created the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, issued a formal apology for its slave trading, and renamed two buildings that had been named for priests and early presidents of the university who sold the slaves. President John. J. DeGioia also visited descendants in Louisiana.
Since finding out more about her ancestors who were sold and sent to Louisiana, Short-Colomb has been able to piece together her family tree and has met relatives there she never knew she had. She hopes that she will continue to find out more about her family during her time here at Georgetown. “I’m not here to live the 18- to 22-year-old experience. I’m here for a very specific reason … to know more,” she said.
“There are many African-Americans who have not had the opportunity to have this well-established paper trail in their lives,” Short-Colomb said. But just because the papers don’t exist doesn’t negate the experiences, she said. Rothman and Chatelain have been working with many other scholars to compile the Georgetown Slavery Archive, and several descendants have come to campus to see the materials.