On the first day of class at Georgetown University, the 63-year-old freshman left her dorm room in Copley Hall, carrying highlighters and a legal pad. Walking down the hallway, her gray-blond dreadlocks swinging, her heavy bracelets chiming, Mélisande Short-Colomb gave her schedule a quick look. Today she’d attend the “Problem of God,” a course on the existence and nature of God. And tomorrow would bring the class she’d been waiting for: African American Studies.
It was a subject with which Short-Colomb had recently become more acquainted. The history of her own family was the history of African Americans, and, she has learned, proof of how deeply the roots of slavery go in America’s most prominent institutions and universities. At a time when the nation is undergoing a tumultuous reckoning with the darkest chapter of its past, when protests have turned deadly in Charlottesville and college students across the country are demanding the renaming of buildings linked to slavery, Short-Colomb was quietly coming to terms with her own place in that sweep of history.
Her ancestors were among the 272 slaves Georgetown priests had sold in 1838 to help pay off the university’s debts during a financially turbulent time. Now it was nearly two centuries later, the truth of what happened was finally out in the open and here she was, a member of her family, again in Washington but under very different circumstances. The university has granted legacy status to the slaves’ descendants as part of an effort to atone for the sale of their ancestors. But only two have taken up the offer so far. One is 20 years old. The other is Mélisande Short-Colomb.
The effects of slavery are still being felt in 2017 and, in an effort to make amends for profiting from the sale of 272 Maryland enslaved people in 1838 to pay off school debts, Georgetown University has renamed two buildings on their campus to honor those who were sold.
The slave sale was conducted by two Jesuit priests and was worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars. They have renamed one building Isaac Hawkins Hall to honor the first person listed in documents related to the sale. Another building was renamed after Anne Marie Becraft, a free Black woman who taught Catholic Black girls in what was then the town of Georgetown.
This is just one of the many steps the university is taking in order to make amends for the part they played during a painful time in U.S. history. During a speech Thursday afternoon, Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, announced the school would create an institute for the study of slavery and there will be a public memorial to the enslaved people whose labor benefited the school.
Nearly two centuries after Georgetown University profited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said on Wednesday.
In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed— one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order. So far, Mr. DeGioia’s plan does not include a provision for offering scholarships to descendants, a possibility that was raised by a university committee whose recommendations were released on Thursday morning. The committee, however, stopped short of calling on the university to provide such financial assistance, as well as admissions preference.
More than a century after Georgetown University used some of the profits from the sale of 272 enslaved African-Americans to help ensure its survival, John J. DeGioia, the university’s president, took a first step on Monday toward making amends to their descendants.
He walked into the public library in Spokane, Wash., for a private meeting with Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, a great-great-great granddaughter of Nace and Biby Butler, two of the enslaved persons who were sold in 1838 to help keep the college afloat.
The 45-minute meeting, which was followed by a lunch at the nearby Davenport Hotel, may well have been a historic one.
More than a dozen universities have recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But historians say they believe this is the first time that the president of an elite university has met with the descendants of slaves who had labored on a college campus or were sold to benefit one. “I came to listen and to learn,” Mr. DeGioia said in an interview, describing the discussion as “moving and inspiring.”
Ms. Bayonne-Johnson, an amateur genealogist and retired teacher, said she believed Mr. DeGioia was willing to take necessary steps “to honor the sacrifice and legacy” of her ancestors. “He asked what could he do and how could he help,” she said in an interview. “It was a very good beginning.”
The meeting comes as officials at Georgetown continue to grapple with how to address the college’s complicity in the slave sale. The slaves, who were owned by the Jesuit priests who founded and ran the college, were sold for about $3.3 million in today’s dollars.
John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., made a major commitment to address racial issues on campus. Last fall students staged a sit-in outside the president’s office demanding the university address its past ties to slavery, increase the number of Black faculty on campus, and begin an ongoing and discussion of racial issues confronting the university.
President DeGioia stated that the university would create a major in African American studies and create an academic department in the field or a larger interdisciplinary program in the discipline. He also said that the university would establish a new research center “focused on racial injustice and the persistent and enduring legacy of racism and segregation in the American experience.” He vowed to recruit an appropriate number of faculty members to support the research center and African American studies initiative and to hire a new senior executive to oversee these programs.
“I hope to encourage all of us to pick up the pace – to commit to a more energized effort to address what has been the besetting conflict – evil – of our American society – racial injustice,” DeGioia said in an address to the university community. “For a place like Georgetown, it is of special importance for us to recognize this history – to recognize its implications for our nation and our responsibilities to one another.”
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has announced that it is changing the names of two buildings on campus. Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall were both named after former presidents of the university.
In 1838, Father Thomas F. Mulledy authorized the sale of 272 slaves owned by the Society of Jesus in Maryland to a slaveowner in Louisiana in order to alleviate the university’s debt. Current Georgetown University President John J. DiGioia has stated that “though Father Mulledy contributed much to our university, his actions represent a difficult past that is contrary to the values and mission of our University — a mission that we affirm and seek to strengthen in our examination of this history and its impact on our current moment.”
William McSherry, another former president of the university, also sold slaves and advised Father Mulledy on the 1838 sale.
President DiGioia announced on November 14 that Mulledy Hall, a student dormitory on campus, would now be called Freedom Hall. McSherry Hall, which houses a meditation center on campus, will now be known as Remembrance Hall. Both names have been changed on an interim basis until a decision has been made on permanent names for the facilities.
President DiGioia stated that “as a University, we are a place where conversations are convened and dialogue is encouraged, even on topics that may be difficult. This is what we will continue to do at Georgetown. We are supportive of our students and proud of the depth of their engagement in these urgent conversations. These issues require the very best of each of us and call us to continue to come together as a community to engage this important work.”
Namwali Serpell, an associate professor of English at the University of California, is the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize, honoring the best writing by an African author. The award was presented on July 7 at a ceremony at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. Zoë Wicomb, a South African author who was chair of the judges committee for this year’s Caine Prize, said that “from a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading. Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects.”
Dr. Serpell is a native of Zambia and came to the United States at the age of 9. Her parents returned to Zambia in 2002. Her father is a professor of psychology at the University of Zambia and her mother is an economist who has worked for the United Nations. Professor Serpell was honored for her short story “The Sack,” which can be viewed here. She is the first author from Zambia to win the Caine Prize.
The Caine Prize comes with a cash award of £10,000. Dr. Serpell announced that she would share the prize money with the other authors who were on the short list for the Caine Prize. As the winner of the Caine Prize, Dr. Serpell will have the opportunity to take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Dr. Serpell joined the faculty at Berkeley in 2008 and was promoted and granted tenure in 2014. She is the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty (Harvard University Press, 2014). Dr. Serpell is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English language and literature from Harvard University.
Donna Brazile, an academic, author, syndicated columnist, television political commentator, and political strategist, has been named Commencement speaker for the Spelman College Class of 2015. Brazile, who will receive an honorary degree, will address more than 475 graduates on Sunday, May 17, 2015, at 3 p.m. at the Georgia International Convention Center.
“Donna Brazile has been a trailblazer in the political arena and a staunch advocate for human and civil rights,” said President Beverly Daniel Tatum. “We are pleased she will have an opportunity to impart words of wisdom to Spelman graduates as they begin the next phase of life’s journey, and join the ranks of Spelman alumnae who have made a choice to change the world.”
With a lifelong passion for political progress, Brazile had worked with a candidate every presidential campaign from 1976 through 2000, when she became the first African American to manage a presidential campaign. Today, Brazile is founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates LLC, a general consulting, grassroots advocacy, and training firm based in Washington, D.C. She is also the vice chair of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee and former interim national chair of the political organization.
Rashema Melson, an Anacostia High School senior and resident of Washington D.C.’s largest homeless shelter, just earned a scholarship to Georgetown University.
“I feel accomplished,” she tells us. “I feel I did something worthy. I feel like I did it. But I’m not done yet.”
What makes Rashema’s story all the more remarkable is when you consider where she comes from. For the past two years, Rashema, her mother and two siblings have been living at the D.C. homeless shelter.
“It’s pushing me to be better, to know what I want in life, and to know this is not what I want, but I have to go through it for the moment,” she said.
“She is definitely a success story,” said Dora Taylor, a spokesperson with the D.C. Department of Human Services. “She definitely is.”
The department oversees the shelter.
“As you can see, she has no complaints,” said Taylor. “Nothing depresses her. Seemingly nothing brings her down. And she has the right attitude. You know, she expressed to you that she’s grateful despite her circumstances.” “And she’s determined that she’s going to do you know exactly what she needs to do in life to be self-supportive on her own. So we are extremely proud of Rashema.” “I think the toughest part is just moving around before we got to the shelter,” said Rashema. “Because it’s been going on for six years.”
Some really big news for Alonzo Mourning, who won his NBA title with Miami Heat. Mourning’s not only being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, but it’s a nice addition to being a board member of his alma mater, Georgetown University.
Mourning is joined by former NBA star Mitch Richmond and NCAA championship-winning coaches Nolan Richardson and Gary Williams.
“I didn’t understand the prestige of this university, the global prestige of this university,” Mourning said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I ever thought as a freshman that I would be sitting on the board of that university. Now I’m rubbing elbows with CEOs and billionaires and individuals that helped change this world.”
With 668 wins under his belt, Williams definitely deserves his honor. “I was just a coach,” Williams said. “To be able to go in with Nolan certainly is great.”