Georgetown sold her ancestors to pay a debt. Now they’re paying part of their debt to her.

In 1838, Mélisande Short-Colomb’s ancestors were sold by the co-presidents of Georgetown University to pay down a debt.

This semester, the university is finally repaying part of its debt to her family.

At 63, Short-Colomb is the oldest freshman in Georgetown’s incoming class thanks to a new policy that grants the descendants of the 272 enslaved people included in the 1838 sale “legacy” status, which guarantees them a second look in the admissions process.

The New Orleans resident and professional chef told APM Reports’ Kate Ellis that she had no idea what to expect the day her acceptance letter came.

“I cracked it open. I looked at it a little bit with one eye closed, and I saw that ‘we are happy to…’ and then I snatched it out of the envelope and gave it to my best friend and told her, ‘Read this to me,'” she said in the August interview. “And I was sitting there crying.”

Short-Colomb plans to live in the dorms and major in African-American studies. In four years, she’ll graduate with the class of 2021.

Her full story can be found in a recent edition of APM Reports’ podcast.

Georgetown announced the decision in September last year, launching an effort to recruit students who qualify.

“We provide care and respect for the members of the Georgetown community — faculty, staff, alumni, those with an enduring relationship with Georgetown,” university president John DeGioia said in a statement. “We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants.”

Some, like Short-Colomb, have expressed gratitude for the gesture.

“I’m not 18, so for Georgetown to do this, it is special, and it does mean something, and I do feel that I have been touched by grace,” she told APM Reports.

Georgetown University. Photo by Daderot/Wikimedia Commons.

Others, like Sandra Thomas, whose children recently applied to the school as descendants, have criticized the move as insufficient, particularly with regard to a hypothetical applicant whose ancestors weren’t included in the sale.

“What you going to do for him?” she wondered in an April interview with NPR. “Did his ancestors suffer any less? No.”

In response to mounting criticism and activism, other universities have begun to reckon with their historical ties to slavery, though few have gone as far as Georgetown in offering direct support to descendants of those enslaved.

In March, Harvard University convened a conference to explore the university’s complicity in the institution and the slave trade. In February, after a lengthy and contentious debate, Yale announced it would rename its Calhoun College, originally named after pro-slavery lawmaker John C. Calhoun.

At an April ceremony that Short-Colomb attended, the university began to make amends to the families of the 272 enslaved people it sold, starting with an apology.

“It is our very enslavement of another, our very ownership of another, culminating in the tragic sale of 272 women, men, and children that remains with us to this day, trapping us in an historic truth, for which we implore mercy and justice, hope and healing,” Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said in an address that day.

Since then, generations have come and gone without restitution. For thousands, the move to offer a seat in the classroom came too late.

For others, like Short-Colomb, who plans to wear a tassel to graduation in four years, it turned out to be right on time. Even at 63.

Georgetown Masters of Science in Foreign Service graduation, 2009. Photo by Ben Turner/Flickr.

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