Starting School At The University That Enslaved Her Ancestors

Sep 19, 2017
Originally published on September 19, 2017 12:46 pm

Mélisande Short-Colomb knew her family had been enslaved. But until recently, she didn't know that they were enslaved, and later sold, by Georgetown University.

She found out about that part of her history when she got a message from a genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, which is dedicated to finding the descendents of the 272 people sold by the university in 1838.

That, Short-Colomb says, "was an 'Oh, my God!' moment." And it led to a big life decision: She filled out an application to Georgetown and got accepted. This fall, at age 63, she's enrolled as a freshman.

"The mountain doesn't come to you," she says. "You go to the mountain."

She's moved from her native Louisiana to the university's Washington, D.C., campus, where she plans to major in African-American studies.

Below are highlights from Short-Colomb's interview with Mary Louise Kelly, of NPR's Morning Edition:


On learning that her ancestors were enslaved by Georgetown:

I was sad, I was hurt, I was angry. Which is something that I am all of the time, for all of my life, as a black American child born in 1954. What is happening here should not be a surprise. This isn't an 'aha' moment. This is history. And this is a part of our American story that we don't talk about. It's the difficult conversation we refuse to have.

On how her enrollment at Georgetown affects its legacy of slavery:

I don't think my being there actually starts to set things right. That's really not what's happening here. And I don't think we should misunderstand that. I made an application and was accepted as a qualified individual to attend Georgetown University. I had to apply like everybody else. I have student loans. I have a scholarship. I have a Pell Grant. I have work study. I have all of those things that go into being a student, and being a somewhat disadvantaged student.

On telling her kids about her decision:

I have four adult children and two grandchildren. My baby is 32. My oldest daughter is 38. I used to tell them all the time when they were growing up, "When you are adults you're going to have to call one another to see where I am." I am not the hovering, helicopter, have-a-grandchild-so-I-can-have-something-to-do-with-my-life mom. I'm the mom who's gotta work until she dies. I stayed at home, I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years. Then I went to culinary school. I worked for 22 years as a professional culinarian, from line cook to executive chef. That's work that, physically, I can't do any more. And I'm not a sit-at-a-desk sort of person. And that was not my skill set. So every time I have needed to magnify my own skill set, the logical thing to do was to go to school, and improve my skill set. So this is a typical thing for me to do.

On living on a campus that her ancestors helped build:

I feel good about it. And I feel like we, who are descendants on campus now — there are three of us on campus — I feel like we are the dreams of our ancestors realized. We are prayers that are answered. We are 180 years in the future, of people who were terrified. On some day in 1838, when their lives were dramatically changed. And it's taken that long for us to talk about it.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let me introduce you to Melisande Short-Colomb. She's a freshman at Georgetown University here in D.C.

MELISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: I have one class in African-American studies. I have a class in anthropology. I have a problem of God class, which is a core requirement.

KELLY: Short-Colomb stands apart from her classmates for a couple reasons. One, she is 63 years old, another is she is the descendant of slaves, slaves owned and then sold by Georgetown priests back in 1838. The university has granted legacy status to their descendants like Short-Colomb - part of an effort to atone for past wrongs.

Short-Colomb told me she had no idea about this piece of her history until she got a message on Facebook from a genealogist working to trace the connection between the university and her family.

SHORT-COLOMB: It was an oh-my-God moment because I'd read about the connection to families in Maringouin, La. and did not associate that with my own family, who was from Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish.

KELLY: And so the aha moment for you was you knew your family had been slaves. You did not know that they'd been sold and by who.

SHORT-COLOMB: I assumed they had been sold because they were slaves. I did not know by whom.

KELLY: And what did you make of that?

SHORT-COLOMB: I was sad. I was hurt. I was angry, which is something that I am all of the time for all of my life as a black American child born in 1954. What is happening here should not be a surprise. This isn't an aha moment. This is history. And this is a part of our American story that we don't talk about. It's the difficult conversation we refuse to have.

KELLY: And how, for you, is going and being a student? Walking that campus, how does that, in some way, start to set things right in your mind?

SHORT-COLOMB: I don't think my being there actually starts to set things right. That's really not what's happening here. And I don't think we should misunderstand that. I made an application and was accepted as a qualified individual to attend Georgetown University.

KELLY: You had to apply like anybody else.

SHORT-COLOMB: I had to apply like everybody else. I have student loans. I have scholarship. I have Pell Grant. I have work study. I have all of those things that go into being a student and being a somewhat disadvantaged student.

KELLY: What did your kids say? We should mention you're a mom.

SHORT-COLOMB: I am a mom. I have four adult children and two granddaughters.

KELLY: Oh, my goodness. So your kids must be older than the students you're...

SHORT-COLOMB: Yes.

KELLY: ...Dorming with now.

SHORT-COLOMB: My oldest daughter is 38.

KELLY: And what did they say when you said, I'm going to go back and give this college thing a shot?

SHORT-COLOMB: This is a mom move.

(LAUGHTER)

SHORT-COLOMB: This is a mom move. I used to tell them all the time when they were growing up, when you are adults, you're going to have to call one another to see where I am. I am not the hovering-helicopter, have-a-grandchild-so-I-can-have-something-to-do-with-my-life mom.

KELLY: No, that's pretty clear.

SHORT-COLOMB: I'm the mom who's got to work until she dies. So this is a typical thing for me to do.

KELLY: I wonder what you feel just walking around campus, looking at some of the beautiful buildings there knowing your ancestors helped build them and not out of their own free will.

SHORT-COLOMB: I feel good about it.

KELLY: Really?

SHORT-COLOMB: And I feel like I am the - we who are descendants on campus now, there are three of us on campus. And I feel like we are the dreams of our ancestors realized. We are prayers that are answered. We are 180 years in the future of people who were terrified on some days in 1838 when their lives were dramatically changed. And it's taken that long for us to talk about it.

KELLY: That's a beautiful way to see it. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHORT-COLOMB: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: That's Melisande Short-Colomb. She is descended from slaves owned and sold by the Jesuit priests at Georgetown. And now she's enrolled there as a college freshman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.