Starting School At The University That Enslaved Her Ancestors : Code Switch NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talked to Mélisande Short-Colomb, whose family was once enslaved by Georgetown University. Now, at 63, Short-Colomb has enrolled as a freshman there.
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Starting School At The University That Enslaved Her Ancestors

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Starting School At The University That Enslaved Her Ancestors

Starting School At The University That Enslaved Her Ancestors

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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...


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.


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.

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