In the fall of 1838, 272 enslaved men, women, and children who had belonged to some of the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests were loaded onto ships and sold for a profit equivalent to $3.3 million today in order to secure the future of an institution now known as Georgetown University. New York Minute Magazine had the honor and privilege of conducting an exclusive interview with Mélisande Short-Colomb who, nearly 200 years after her ancestors were sold by the University, is now preparing to enter the second semester of her freshman year at Georgetown.
Short-Colomb is one of nearly 6,000 known direct descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were involved in the 1838 sale. Although she has always felt a deep connection with her ancestors, it wasn’t until recently that she had been made aware of the full extent of her familial history.
“I was under the assumption that, when my family came to Louisiana, they were free people. That was not the case,” Short-Colomb told New York Minute Magazine. “In 2016, I found out that my three-times great grandparents, Mary Ellen Queen and Abraham Mahoney, had been sold by the Jesuits.”
Before being contacted by the genealogist, Short-Colomb had read about the Georgetown sale in an article published by the New York Times, but it never occurred to her that the story she had read could be a part of her own. “It was a bit of a shock, but it made sense that my family wouldn’t have come to Louisiana as free people. There was no such thing as freedom in Louisiana at the time for black people.”
The truth about Short-Colomb’s past altered the trajectory of her future. She became a member of the GU272 Descendents Association, an online community dedicated to connecting descendants as well as preserving the memory and commemorating the lives of the 272 people who were sold. Since the New York Times story was published, the group has amassed over 400 active members and Georgetown has made efforts to make amends for its participation in the slave trade.
“We [the descendants’ association] heard a rumor that the university was going to start accepting applications from students who would be able to claim this descendant status without actually having to establish descendancy from those 272 people,” Short-Colomb recalled. “I thought this was a bit of a broad stroke to extend. How can you skip over specific people who you sold to your benefit and now everyone gets to use this? I thought, ‘I’m a descendant,’ so I started the application. It was cold, it was raining, I didn’t have anything else to do that day.”
As a 63-year-old, fully-actualized woman – having lived as a daughter, wife, mother, and now as her own individual woman – Short-Colomb understood it would not be easy to apply to a prestigious university where, if she were to attend, she would be surrounded by classmates who were mostly under the age of 25. “There was no guarantee that I was going to be accepted or even considered. I had to go through all of the processes that incoming students have to go through and I had to do it by myself. I don’t have parents or anyone to help me,” she said. “I decided that if I start this, I was going to follow it all the way through.”
In June, she received a letter denoting her acceptance into Georgetown University’s class of 2021. “I was scared, I was nervous, but I was thrilled and I was committed,” she said. She packed her bags and embarked on a journey that is not only changing her life, but is also inspiring many others. “People all over the world are hearing this story and I’ve had an overwhelming positive response.”
Short-Colomb says that she felt honored that New York Minute Magazine wanted to interview her for a feature in our Badass Women section of the publication. “I thought, yeah, that’s what I am. I’m a badass. People are assuming that I’m here because Georgetown came and got me. They didn’t, I came and got them.”
Short-Colomb, who identifies herself as a history fanatic, is currently working toward a degree in History, but she believes she discovered her true passion during her work-study job in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections, where Georgetown University houses rare manuscripts, books, and artworks.
“I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the world,” Short-Colomb gushed. “I think I’m going to be a librarian.” Unfortunately, Georgetown does not offer a degree in library sciences. “I’m going to do my undergrad here in history and then move on and get my masters in library sciences at the University of Maryland.”
Her family arrived in the country in 1750 and lived in the Washington Metropolitan Area for nearly 100 years before being sold to Louisiana. “I like the area. I feel like I’ve come back home,” Short-Colomb said. “I think I’m going to hang out here for a while.”
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