Retiree Remembers Enslaved Ancestors As She Begins Freshman Year at Georgetown University

A retired New Orleans chef and mother recently took on a new title -- freshman member of Georgetown’s class of 2021.

Mélisande Short-Colomb, 63, began class last week as an African-American Studies major.

Short-Colomb is one of a few currently-enrolled Georgetown students who are descendants of the 272 slaves sold in 1838 to benefit the school.

In 1838, two leaders at the prominent university orchestrated the sale of men, women and children for $115,000, or roughly $3.3 million in today's dollars, to pay off debts at the school. Among the 272 that were sold and sent to plantations in Louisiana were Short-Colomb’s ancestors, Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen. 

The university has attempted to acknowledge and apologize for its historical ties to slavery. Last year, school officials announced they would give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits in an effort to atone for profiting from the sale.

Short-Colomb, a New Orleans native, was not aware of Mahoney and Queen’s ties to Georgetown until last summer. Until then, she had only heard her great-great-great grandparents’ stories through limited versions of oral histories. 

After discovering more of her family’s complete history, Short-Colomb said she knew she wanted to return to school.


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"I am as unencumbered in my life as I have ever been. I have always done and pursued the things that have interested me most in life," she said. 

On Aug. 27, Short-Colomb held her new college’s banner at the New Student Convocation. 

"I was honored and humbled by the invitation to receive the Georgetown College banner in homage to my ancestors, my GU272 descendant community and the Georgetown College Class of 2021," she said, after the convocation. 

Prior to beginning classes, Short-Colomb spent a week participating in Georgetown’s Preparing to Excel program, which aims to help incoming students adjust to their new lives. 

"They really try to give us a nice overview of Georgetown life in five days, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do," Short-Colomb said. 

Another descendant is enrolled this semester as a transfer student, and a third will begin a graduate degree in the spring, according to a press release from the university. Short-Colomb said she hopes more descendants will enroll, and that she looks forward to connecting with them. 

In addition to awarding priority admission consideration to descendants, the university also renamed two buildings.

Isaac Hawkins Hall, formerly known as Mulledy Hall, was renamed for the first enslaved person listed for sale on the recovered documents from 1838. Anne Marie Becraft Hall — formerly McSherry Hall — got its name from Anne Marie Becraft, a free African-American woman who created a school for young black girls in Georgetown. 

For Short-Colomb, this recognition of the past has led to her sharing a classroom with students several decades her junior and with vastly different life experiences.

"I am so encouraged and appreciative of my classmates," she said. "There are decades between us, but I have so much to learn from them, and I think there’s a lot they can learn from me," she said. 

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