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“Here I Am”: Meet a Descendant of One of 272 Enslaved People Sold on June 19, 1838, by Georgetown U.

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We look at another significant June 19 in the history of slavery in the United States: June 19, 1838, when Jesuit priests who ran what is now Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to pay off the school’s debts. In 2016, Georgetown University announced it would give preferential admissions treatment to descendants of the Africans it enslaved and sold. “Ours, as Americans, is an uninterrupted line of inheritance that many of us refuse to believe that we are descendants of,” says Mélisande Short-Colomb, who is one of the first two Georgetown University students to benefit from legacy admission for direct descendants and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Georgetown Memory Project.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

We look now at another June 19th: 1838, when Jesuit priests who ran what’s now Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved men, women and children to pay off the school’s debts. In 2016, Georgetown University announced it would give preferential admissions treatment to descendants of the Africans it enslaved and sold.

In 2017, The New York Times published the only known photograph of Frank Campbell, one of the enslaved people sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838.

In March, the Jesuits pledged $100 million to atone for their participation in slavery, in a deal with a small representative group of descendants, the Catholic Church and corporate partners. A wider group of descendants opposed the deal, saying it was done in private and doesn’t go far enough to repair the harms done.

In a minute, we’ll be joined by Mélisande Short-Colomb, one of the first two Georgetown University students to benefit from legacy admission for direct descendants. First, though, this is a trailer of her one-woman play, Here I Am.

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: I feel like my whole life and all of the lives that have come before me are balled up inside of me. The New York Times broke a story in April 2016 revealing that the Jesuits had sold 272 enslaved persons in 1838 to raise funds to keep Georgetown University going. A few months later, I discovered that I descended from two families in the sale: the Queens and the Mahoneys. By September 2017, I had entered Georgetown College as an undergraduate student at the age of 63.

Here I am, paying homage to 11 generations of the women who have come into me and who are part of me. I am here to tell their story, handed down over more than 300 years. Our ancestors have waited patiently, through centuries, for us to come to the table of acknowledgment. I am Mélisande Short-Colomb. Here I am. Here we are.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the one-woman play, Here I Am, by Mélisande Short-Colomb, who joins us now, one of the first two students to benefit from legacy admission for direct descendants of the enslaved by the Jesuits at Georgetown University, where she’s also a community engagement associate and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Georgetown Memory Project.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mélisande. It’s such an honor to have you with us. Your thoughts today on this first federal holiday of Juneteenth? And if you can talk about that other June 19th, 1838, and what happened?

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me here.

Juneteenth 2021, here we are, acknowledging injustices of the past in the present, for the future. Yes, it did take enslaved people two-and-a-half years in Texas to learn that they had been freed. But it’s taken us 156 years as Americans to acknowledge that event. So, we are the turners of the wheels of progress and change.

June 19th, 1838, 183 years ago, my family, two sides of my family — my young great-great-great-grandparents met on a boat on their way to Louisiana and started a family that results in me and many of my cousins in Louisiana. We were part of the human trafficking trade in the United States of America — not the theoretical Middle Passage, which was very true and brought people — more people to the Caribbean and South America than to the United States of America. Yes, I am a Black woman in 2021, who the institution of slavery was built in the wombs of my grandmothers, because every child that they brought into this world, in this life, in this place, from 1677 until 1865, were slaves at birth. What kind of people do that?

Which brings us to the Jesuits, to the founders of the United States of America, to 1868, to 1865, to 1921, to 2021. So, ours, as Americans, is an uninterrupted line of inheritance that many of us refuse to believe that we are descendants of. Black people are not just the descendants of enslavement here in America. We are all the descendants of enslaved here in America. And that is if you got here in 1570, 1619, 1677 or somebody threw you over the fence yesterday. We are here in this place that is 245 years old, plus the colonial period. This belongs to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Mélisande, if you can talk about how Georgetown was saved, prevented from going into bankruptcy, by the sale of nearly 300 enslaved people? Of course, I hate to use the word “saved” — in fact, that was a damning of the university.

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Well, the university, the Jesuits owned property in human beings and in land. In all of their dealings and sales and building of economic wealth here in America, they always had a choice: We can sell people, we can rent out people, or we can sell land. And they always chose to sell the people and not the land. The Jesuits still own all the land that they have always owned in Maryland and in the District of Columbia. The Catholic Church — it’s not just the Jesuits. The Archdiocese of Baltimore got money from this sale. The Catholic Church, up until 1865, in the United States of America were slave-owning Confederates.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go for a moment to Reverend Tim Kesicki, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, speaking at Georgetown University’s “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope.”

REV. TIM KESICKI: Today, the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned. … We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mélisande Short-Colomb, if you can talk about what this $100 million deal is? Where does this money go? And how did you determine that you were one of the descendants? And then, the larger group of people who are understanding where they come from?

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: I cannot actually speak to the details of this agreement between the Jesuits and this group of descendants. I am not part of that group, nor was I privy to those conversations, decisions and agreements that were met. I’m outside of that. I appreciate the effort, the five-year effort that went into creating this concept, because what they’ve done is make it a GoFundMe. So, we have to raise money — the Jesuits have to raise money to correct the economic disparities of the past. This is within the framework of the Catholic Church and not the wider descendant community. Is it a good thing? Yes, it is. I just don’t know and cannot opine, other than to say, “Good. Do your work.”

AMY GOODMAN: And then, there was, in 2019, the students of Georgetown voting to create a reparations fund for the descendants of enslaved people sold by the Jesuits, adding a fee of $27.20 to tuition. What happened after this?

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Nothing. It was taken over by the administration. And this was the first time in the United States of America that a voting body voted to go into their own pockets, $27.20. The opposition to that was, it should be charitable, which is the position that the administration has taken over and made it a GoFundMe. So, what the students said was, “We’re going to go into our pockets as undergraduate students, in perpetuity, to create an endowment, a student endowment, to engage as Georgetown undergraduate students with the larger descendant community.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your play, Here I Am, your one-woman play, what is your message?

MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: I think, “Here we all are.” And my hope with Here I Am was that we have something, we have created something, that can instigate and initiate conversations in the larger context of who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: And those conversations will definitely continue here. I want to thank you so much, Mélisande Short-Colomb, one of the first two Georgetown University students to benefit from legacy admissions for direct descendants enslaved by the Jesuits. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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