Like many other freshmen arriving at Georgetown University this fall, Meli Colomb (COL ’21) wanted to blend in with her classmates as much as possible.
As the oldest undergraduate on campus, Colomb, 63, was not concerned about hiding her age. She is proud of her 63 total years, her 20 years as a professional chef in New Orleans and her time spent as a mother and a grandmother.
Instead, she wanted to keep quiet about a fact that ties her to Georgetown in an intimate way: Colomb is a descendant of one of the 272 slaves sold by Maryland Jesuits in 1838 to keep the university afloat.
“At first, I didn’t really want to talk to anybody about it. I just wanted to come here and be a student and have everybody wondering: ‘Who is that old lady, and why is she here?’” Colomb said. “But I can’t. I can’t.”
Colomb is one of the first two descendants who have enrolled at Georgetown since the university began its process of reconciliation with its slaveholding past. In addition, Shepard Thomas (COL ’20) arrived in Washington, D.C. this fall, and he will be joined by his sister Elizabeth Thomas (GRD ’20) in January.
Until late 2015, neither Colomb nor the Thomas siblings had any idea that their ancestors had helped build and sustain the university while enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits.
“I was floored,” Colomb said.
For most of their lives, the Thomas siblings believed their family history in America began in Louisiana, where they were born and raised. Their mother has ties to the small town of Maringouin, La., but that was the extent of the family history they were able to gather.
Colomb had more information about her familial history, but it was still not complete. She knew from the oral history passed down from her great-grandmother and grandmother that her family originated in Maryland — perhaps in Baltimore.
However, she had always been told that her ancestors were freed before the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually made their way down to New Orleans, only to be enslaved by an Irish Catholic family. But why would a free family of black Americans travel south to the cane fields of Louisiana, lands that were riddled with slaveholders?
It took an outside hand, the Georgetown Memory Project, to begin the process of informing the descendants about their family history and Georgetown’s role in it. The Georgetown Memory Project, a group independent of the university, is attempting to discover, locate and identify descendants of the 272 people sold.
Last summer, Judy Riffel, a genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, contacted Colomb on Facebook and asked if she was related to someone named Mary Ellen Queen. Colomb wrote back, telling her that Queen had been her great-great-great-grandmother. The pieces began to fall into place.
As the descendants were being informed of their family histories, Georgetown was just beginning the process of grappling with how to reconcile its role in these family histories.
Despite offering legacy admissions status to all descendants of the Georgetown 272 — a move that led to the applications of the Thomas siblings and Colomb to Georgetown — members of the community and others looking in have criticized this move as much too little, too late.
For Georgetown Memory Project founder Richard Cellini (COL ’84, LAW ’87), the university’s failure to comb its archives for descendants was a mistake.
“The simple fact is that, for 150 years, nobody from Georgetown ever went looking for the GU 272 and their descendants. Not once, not ever,” Cellini said. “Georgetown committed two fundamental errors for the last 150 years. It never went looking, and, if it did, it never shared the truth with the people to whom it mattered most, which is the descendants.”
Months before the Thomas and the Colomb families and thousands of others learned the truth about their ancestors, Georgetown’s historic ties to slavery were shaking up campus.
To solve a growing financial crisis, in 1838 former University President Fr. Thomas F. Mulledy, S.J., sold 272 enslaved men, women and children who belonged to the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus to two sugar plantations in Louisiana. The profits from the sale would allow the university to survive.
University President John J. DeGioia announced the formation of a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation in September 2015 in response to the backlash against the university’s naming of the newly reopened Former Jesuit Residence as Mulledy Hall. The working group, made up of 16 members meant to represent different facets of the Georgetown community, was charged with addressing the history and ongoing ramifications of slaveholding by Jesuits at Georgetown.
By November, the slow progress of the working group led student activists to organize in new ways. Around 250 black student activists demonstrated in Red Square on Nov. 12, 2015, listing six demands for the Georgetown administration.
Among the demands were the renaming of Mulledy Hall and the McSherry Building — named after then-University President Fr. William McSherry, S.J., who served as Mulledy’s lawyer during the sale — an endowment for recruiting black professors, mandatory training on diversity issues for professors and increased memorialization of Georgetown’s enslaved. The activists also staged a sit-in outside DeGioia’s office in Healy Hall.
For Cellini, though he supported the Red Square demonstration and the activists’ demands, there was a glaring question that nobody seemed to be asking.
“It was all about what buildings should be named or not named at Georgetown and what the campus tour should say,” Cellini said. “My question was, ‘Well, all of that’s very nice, but what happened to the people? What happened to the 272 men, women and children that were sold?’”
One year later, in September 2016, DeGioia announced a series of measures to address Georgetown’s history with slavery, including the granting of legacy status to descendants of the 272, a formal apology for the university’s’ role in slavery, and efforts to further research and memorialize slavery on Georgetown’s campus.
But for Cellini, the university’s efforts had come too late — and without a focus on discovering descendants. Cellini decided that if the university was not progressing in piecing together the history of the enslaved after the 1838 sale, somebody would have to.
“I got involved because like everybody else, I read the articles and I thought they were very interesting,” Cellini said. “I’m not rich; I’m not powerful; I’m not famous. I was just interested. There was a lot of stuff coming from the university about plaques and commemorative songs and plays and the script of the campus tour and whether Mulledy should be renamed or not. It’s not trivial, but it didn’t strike me as central.”
Out of this interest and a deep sense of commitment to discovering the truth, Cellini founded the Georgetown Memory Project. Since its founding in 2015, the Georgetown Memory Project has identified and located 212 of the 272 slaves sold and 5,200 of their descendants.
Cellini made contact with the first verified descendant Nov. 17, 2015. He immediately notified members of the working group but was met with no significant interest in interviewing or including descendants in their work.
“After I started finding descendants, I expressly told the university. All of this is documented in email,” Cellini said. “Between November of 2015 and April of 2016, I advised the university repeatedly that we were finding living descendants, and they had no interest in meeting with them or talking to them.”
This changed April 16, 2016, when The New York Times published a front-page article about the living descendants of the Georgetown 272, with the headline “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”
Cellini did not know the answer to the question the article posed, but he had an idea where Georgetown could start.
“You have a working group talking about making reparations to descendants, and there were no descendants on it, even though they knew there were descendants,” Cellini said. “I had descendants on the phone with the president’s office begging them to add descendants to the working group or at least to allow descendants to review the working group recommendations before they were announced publicly in September.”
According to Cellini, the university explicitly refused.
“We were on the telephone at the highest level of the president’s office on multiple occasions, including all of August of 2016, and they just refused,” Cellini said.
However, History Professor Adam Rothman, who sat on the working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation, said he did not recall that the working group or anyone at the university was refusing to include descendants in the working group.
“The big revelations about the descendants came in late spring when the working group was really almost done with its work. There really wasn’t enough time to incorporate descendants into the process,” Rothman said. “One of the recommendations of the working group was from that moment forward to try to include descendants in a meaningful way.”
Joe Ferrara, the chief of staff to DeGioia, acknowledged that his office was aware that the working group reached out to descendants prior to The New York Times article’s being published in August.
Cellini said he heard these conflicting answers from DeGioia himself.
“Jack particularly waffles and sort of tries to preserve the appearance that the university did, in fact, know there were descendants and the university wasn’t caught flat-footed,” Cellini said. “My question to Jack expressly has been, ‘If you knew about the existence of the descendants and didn’t tell anybody, that raises very, very serious ethical and moral questions. Why didn’t they tell people? Why didn’t they find more descendants?’”
The university’s knowledge of the existence of descendants and lack of action contributes to the troubled aftermath of the 1838 sale, which — much like slavery broadly — has lasting socioeconomic implications to this day.
For the descendants of the slaves sold to benefit Georgetown, this becomes an even bigger problem when examining how localized many of the descendants are.
The Georgetown Memory Project estimates that around 900 of the 1,200 people living in Maringouin, La., are direct descendants of the 272.
Few, probably none, of the descendants of the 272 would have ended up in Maringouin had the Jesuits not sold them to a plantation there in 1838.
“It’s just incomprehensible to me. Our university was lifted up by pushing other people down. And they’re still down there. They’re exactly where we left them,” Cellini said.
Based on the 2000 census, the median Maringouin, La. household income was $23,816, compared to the national average household income of $55,030.
Maringouin does not have a high school. Upon realizing that access to a Jesuit high school might be more appealing than legacy admission status to Georgetown, Cellini asked residents whether they would be interested in that instead.
When the Maringouin residents said they had no interest in going to school, he asked what they might want.
“One of my friends said ‘Wi-Fi. We’d like our kids to be able to look at the internet,’” Cellini said.
Colomb added that she thinks there might be a solution, if only someone from the Maryland Jesuits or Georgetown would shoulder the responsibility.
“There are people at the epicenter of where my family and other families landed in Louisiana who don’t have Wi-Fi, who are living in very, very disenfranchised and poor situations, all this time later,” Colomb said. “So, what can the Jesuits do? Maybe they can fix that.”
Georgetown has reached out to descendants - DeGioia was the first president of an American university to meet a descendant of a slave whose sale benefitted the school when he met with Patrica Bayonne Johnson in June 2016. And in April of this year, Georgetown invited hundreds of descendants of the 272 to campus for the University’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope.
For Colomb, the information that she was a descendant of the 272 could not have come at a more important time. Colomb had just left her job as a professional chef and was re-examining her options.
After leaving college the first time, starting a family, going to culinary school and working for 22 years as a chef, Colomb did not feel secure enough to stop working.
“My retirement has never been secure for me. I never felt like I was going to be able to stop working, really until I die. I used to think that I was going to die on the kitchen line,” Colomb said.
The discovery that Queen, her great-great-great-grandmother, was one of the slaves sold in 1838 helped Colomb finally piece together her family history. She was still figuring out how to support herself after leaving her restaurant and wanted more information about her relatives.
Though DeGioia announced Sept. 1 that descendants would receive legacy status in admissions, Colomb did not begin the application until January: the result of a New Year’s resolution.
Colomb was accepted. She was to join Shepard Thomas, whose transfer application from Louisiana State University had been accepted, and Elizabeth Thomas, who was accepted into the journalism master’s program in the School of Continuing Studies.
Acceptance to Georgetown did not guarantee that any of the three would be able to make it to campus. Colomb has a federal work-study job in the library; Elizabeth launched a fundraiser on GoFundMe — at $10,400 of a $30,000 goal as of press time — to fund her tuition; and Shepard Thomas thought his financial situation would rule out Georgetown as an option.
They all recognize that their opportunities are not available to every other descendant.
“I’m not sure if the compensation is money, I’m not sure if it’s scholarships because I’m sure not every descendant wants to go to college, and they’re owed something just as much as I am. If I say, ‘I think I want a scholarship,’ that might not be the answer for the next person,” Elizabeth Thomas said.
Shepard Thomas also said that even though he is not receiving scholarships from the university, he has encountered the view that he did not fully earn his place at the school.
“People have a misconception that I’m going here for free, that I had terrible grades,” Shepard Thomas said. “But I’ve always been an honor roll student, and I don’t think they would have accepted me if I wasn’t.”
Shepard Thomas also acknowledged that not all descendants would want or be able to attend Georgetown.
“It’s not easy. There’s all this stress and this weight on my shoulders,” Shepard Thomas said.
Colomb said she feels that same pressure; however, as the oldest of the three, she feels a special urge to push the Georgetown community to reflect on its past as well.
“There needs to be conversations in the student body, in the faculty, in the larger community, in the country, in our homes,” Colomb said.
As much as Colomb wanted to arrive on campus and remain silent about her identity, she knows that she cannot.
“People have been waiting a long time to have somebody tell their story. Those are the people who prayed me into existence through generations,” Colomb said. “People prayed for me and they loved me and gave me everything that I needed to be able to stand here in this moment as a fully grown, 63-year-old woman. I’m ready.”
Coincidentally, Colomb and Shepard Thomas are in the same “Atlantic World” history class, taught by Rothman.
“I’m excited that they’re in the class. For me, I guess it’s sort of a nice culmination of two years of work to see members of the descendant community here at Georgetown and in my class, learning about slavery in an academic setting,” Rothman said.
Unfortunately, Georgetown’s belated welcome has not quelled all fear.
“I am not convinced I can trust the people who sold my family, even though I’m here,” Colomb said.