On the desk in his room at Georgetown University, Mélisande Short-Colomb has a photograph of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist leader who succeeded escape the horror of slavery in 1838. That same year, the life of the Short-Colomb family took a traumatic turn in the opposite direction. It still reverberates. Stalled by a debt that threatened the future of the educational center, the Jesuit leaders of Georgetown, in Washington, decided to sell 272 slaves of their property and that they lived on a plantation in Maryland. The deplorable transaction brought them the equivalent of 3.3 million dollars today, key to Georgetown is today one of the most prestigious universities in the US. Among the black slaves sold they were ancestors of Short-Colomb. Six and five generations back by his mother, including a child of only one year.
The woman was born in New Orleans in 1954. She did not know, however, until 2016 the truth about her origins. Following a newspaper article, an expert contacted her asking about her ancestress Mary Ellen Queen. Short-Colomb repeated what her family had told her: Queen was a slave in Maryland, but her masters released her before the Civil War (1861-1865) with her seven brothers and her mother, and they all moved to Louisiana in search of land to harvest.
However, a DNA test and numerous documents revealed thatThe predecessors of Short-Colomb were sold by Georgetown. They never stopped being slaves, they only changed ownership. His life became even more hellish. They were mistreated on a dramatic journey in which children were separated from their parents and slaves were dragged by force to ships that sailed from Washington to Louisiana. All were under 45 years old. The majority were adolescents and children.
More than a century and a half later, Short-Colomb is, at 64 years old, a second-year student at the university who avoided its collapse thanks to the sale of her ancestors. "I felt I should be here," he says in an interview on campus. "I am a representative of the people they considered expendable and that did not matter."
The message from the genealogy expert two years ago changed her life. It unleashed an introspection about the meaning of being American. How the slave trade, begun in 1619, was key in the development of the country and is the origin of the entrenched disparities between whites and blacks. "I see the history of Georgetown and the Jesuits as a microcosm of this society, of the difficulty we have in approaching our birth as a slave society," he stresses.
Georgetown recognized its business with human trafficking in 2016, apologized and promoted several initiatives, such as facilitating the registration of relatives of the 272 sold slaves and renaming buildings. "Georgetown has worked to confront its historic relationship with slavery and will continue to do so," a spokesperson explains. Other universities, such as Harvard and Columbia, have admitted their ties to slavery, but the sale of Georgetown stands out because of its magnitude.
Short-Colomb is one of the five students whose ancestors were slaves sold by the university. After a life as a chef in Louisiana, having abandoned his university studies and raising a family, he felt the responsibility of connecting with his uncomfortable origins. He likes Washington and his classmates, although he admits to being an anomalous presence on campus because of his age and origin. The woman, who is agnostic, accuses Georgetown of "not doing enough" in educating about slavery and being incoherent with Catholicism for having traded with human beings. "Jesuit values are promoted everywhere and every time the president speaks, he reminds us that they are men and women who live for the other. And I always ask myself the same question: Who are you really talking about? "