Reparations with Melisande Short-Colomb and Ana Lucia Araujo
Host Angela Glover Blackwell with Guests Melisande Short-Colomb and Ana Lucia Araujo
No major institution in America has wrestled more deeply with the question of reparations for African Americans than Georgetown University. Five years ago, a student discovered that Maryland Jesuits sold 272 slaves in 1838 to save the school from financial ruin. That forgotten history sparked an anguished conversation about Georgetown’s complicity in slavery and the school’s responsibility to the descendants of the 272 enslaved people.
In this episode of Radical Imagination, Angela Glover Blackwell speaks with one of the descendants, Melisande Short-Colomb, who is now a a student at Georgetown. We also hear from Howard University history professor Ana Lucia Araujo about what it will take for our nation to finally reckon with and atone for slavery and its legacy.
Angela Glover Blackwell (AGB): (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. In today's episode, we take a close look at reparations. In other words, paying a sum of money to people who have been wronged in the past.
In this case by slavery, and we start off the conversation at the Georgetown University campus in Washington, DC where a five-year long debate around reparations continues to take place.
news clip: (00:37)
The solid majority of students are willing to pay for the schools past sins. They say they believe it's a moral obligation.
In 2014, a Georgetown University junior wrote an opinion piece in the student newspaper that got a lot of attention. The headline read, "Georgetown Financed by Slave Trading," and it uncovered a very important piece of forgotten history dating back to 1838 when the Maryland Jesuits who own Georgetown college sold 272 enslaved men, women, and children to help save the school from financial ruin.
news clip: (01:18)
When we think of Georgetown University, and the Catholic faith, and Jesuit preists -- we don't usually think of the slave trade.
A debate ensued on Georgetown campus about reparations for the descendants of those enslaved families who came to be known as the GU272. One such descendant is Mélisande Short-Colomb. She's a junior at Georgetown University and unlike most other students on campus, she's in her early 60's. Mélisande welcome to Radical Imagination.
Thank you so much, Angela. It's wonderful to be here with you this evening.
Short-Colomb : (01:52)
Well, I'm glad that you're here and you know, I understand that you grew up in Louisiana. What was life like for you growing up there?
Being born in New Orleans, in the 1950's, by the time I went to first grade, I did go to a segregated school, so I always grew up knowing the other side of New Orleans, which was deeply steeped in racism.
Mélisande, let me just get something straight. You knew who your ancestors were, but you had not known about the sale to secure the financials of Georgetown.
That's correct. My family, my grandmother was the second generation born from slavery. Her great-grandmother was 16 years old in 1838 and most of the people who were sold and that 1838 sale were under the age of 18, so they grew up in Louisiana. So my grandmother would tell me first that we were owned by an Irish Catholic family and knew we had been in slaved, but I didn't have the timelines. How we got to the Louisiana, I don't know.
Speaker 1: (03:15)
After the history of Georgetown's sale of Black slaves came out, the University president set up a working group of academic students and administrators to figure out what to do next. A year past and frustrated with the university's lack of action, Black students on campus staged a sit-in at the president's office, they demanded that the name of Thomas Miletti, the former university president who orchestrated the sale be removed from all campus buildings. Then in 2016 the university agreed to give admissions preference to the living descendants of the 272 slaves. People like Mélisande. How did you happen to end up there at Georgetown?
Well I got a personal message from the genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project. I was working as a chef and I got the message, and I looked at it real hard and the message read, "I need to tell you that your three times great-grandparents, Mary Ellen Queen and Abraham Mahoney were part of the 1838 slave sale by the jesuits." I read it again and I put it in my pocket and went back to work and I thought to myself, "Oh my God," I like to tell folks that I sort of imploded and exploded at the same time. This is incredible to be able to know that you are connected this way.
I could imagine how that all comes together in a way that just causes you pause. How did you go from that pause? What does this mean? How do I sit with it, to applying to Georgetown? So president DeGioia, on behalf of the university pledged that moving forward the university would be involved with its past, in the present, to repair the future and make a stronger future. Part of that would be to offer legacy status to any qualified descendant who met the qualifications to attend Georgetown University.
news clip: (05:35)
Atoning for slavery, Georgetown University giving priority admissions to descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits.
There have been no other families who have made the contributions that the 40 families who were enslaved and sold by the jesuits made. So as a qualified descendant, I began my application process.
And what did it feel like, the day that you found out that you were admitted?
Oh, I cried like a baby. I realized that this was expected of me by my ancestors, by my mother, by my grandmother, by my great-grandmothers, and all of the women in my family. Not to say that we did not have incredible men, but the women in my family are who I am and I represent them.
And you applied at a time when you were a parent and even a grandparent. And so to what degree do you think your pretty long life experience brought a different energy to your application and your acceptance?
It is a reciprocal relationship between the school, the students, the administration, and myself, and I came to Georgetown as an act of good faith, a good faith in the institution that my family built, and certainly this is not to say that there would not be a Georgetown University 180 years after the sale of our families, but if that sale had not happened, the Georgetown University that we have today would be a different Georgetown University. So I can say without a doubt that I bring the representation in an active adult way of the involuntary founders of Georgetown University who did not have a choice or the voice to speak on their behalf.
What are some of your clearest memories of arriving on campus?
I was so out of place. I felt out of place when I first moved in, and I walked into my dorm room, what I could see from the window was the jesuit cemetery and I knew that Father McSherry and Mulledy were buried in that cemetery and I had the greatest satisfaction in many of my first semester days when I came and tired and frustrated and not feeling well, and a little depressed, I could stand in my room and look down on the graves of the men who sold my family and enslaved my family and in those moments I had a sweet, perverse satisfaction that I was alive and they were dead.
Mélisande, tell me how did the group of students for a GU272 come about? Many of the students of color and I got to know one another and we started having conversations. The university and the administration had not been proactive in developing and sustaining institutional memory.
news clip: (09:19)
I want everyone here to know that we can not remove the historical pre-context to our current context.
There was a feeling, that on campus, this memory is going to be lost if we don't do something to keep it because a student's life is very quick. It happens in eight semesters. You're in and you're out. Institutions last a really, really long time. What can we do as a group of students to get the attention and involvement of all of the students who will be coming to this university from now on, so we don't lose institutional memory. So we decided to put our heads together and one of our team members wrote an incredible referendum, that we brought to the student union to allow the student body to vote on the referendum.
And What did the referendum call for?
The referendum calls for the students to raise their tuition by $27 and 20 cents per semester. That will go into what we call a reconciliation fund. The monies will be allocated by a board of directors that are made up of descendants and students to create partnerships based on the identified needs of descendants themselves.
The $27 per student doesn't sound like a lot. How much does that add up to per year?
If you multiply it by 7,000 students, we have $400,000 a year.
How did the university react when they heard this proposal?
They were pleased of course that their students are innovative and came up with this idea and they let us know that this is a nonbinding referendum and they are not obligated in any way, shape or form, but it was an overwhelming turnout by the students. At 66 percent of the 7,000 students on campus voted. A third of those voters were against the referendum, but our hope was that it would engage the campus in dialogue about it.
One thing is for sure, you all have added real concreteness, a moment in time, to a conversation that's been going on for a long time. It has moved into the forefront in a way that is very important. Very often when people think of reparations, particularly when it has to do with slavery, we think of a monetary amount going to identifiable individuals. As I listened to you described what would happen with the 400,000 a year that gets put into the fund. It didn't sound like it would go to individuals but would reflect needs that collective individuals thought would be appropriate.
Speaker 2: (12:34)
We can't repair outside of the collective because we can't be repaired when there is brokenness all around us. So everybody has to be repaired. We cannot address the targeted Ills against Black people without addressing White nationalism and White supremacy and those damages as well. So we have to form a collective. No man is an Island.
We were not disenfranchised in the absence of other people. We didn't disenfranchise ourselves. So we got to fix everybody.
Sounds like you all have engaged in very thoughtful debate and you've exercised a lot of courage and creativity to address the original sin of the nation. Mélisande I find that people who step forward like you have often been doing things all their lives that really tapped into what I think of as their superpower. What's your superpower?
My superpower is my grandmother, and everything that I do, every day that I wake up, I wish that I could change places with my grandmother and that she could be here because this is really her story. This is the gift that she gave me as a child and I would give up my place here so she could be here. I do this for my family. I started thinking about this as running my leg of the relay, and when I hand it off I'm going to hand it off as strongly as I received it.
Thank you Mélisande.
You're welcome, Angela. Thank you for inviting me.
Mélisande Short-Colomb is a third-year student at Georgetown and one of the 4,000 living descendants of the GU272.
Last April, Georgetown student body made history when they voted for the creation of a new student fee to financially benefit the descendants. If the university decides to implement the proposed fee, it would become the first example of reparations for slavery carried out by prominent American institution.
Coming up on Radical Imagination, Howard University Professor, Ana Lucia Araujo, helps us put the latest on Georgetown into perspective. Stay with us, more when we come back.
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And we're back, to help us put the latest at Georgetown University into perspective. We're joined by Ana Lucia Araujo. She's a professor of history at nearby Howard University. Her latest book is titled "Reparations in Slavery and Atlantic Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History." Professor Araujo, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Thank you so much for having me.
This issue of reparations really has jumped to the forefront. What do these efforts at Georgetown University mean for the broader national conversation and happening today around reparations?
Speaker 10: (17:22)
Well, first of all, the issue of Georgetown highlights the fact that many institutions in the Americas, in the United States, profited from slavery and the wealth of these institutions exists greatly because of the profits generated by slavery. But at the same time, it also shows us that at least among the youth in U.S. Universities, there is an interest to come to terms with a a very painful and traumatic past that is part of all societies and they want to address the issues of racism and racial inequalities.
This isn't the first time that people have joined forces to demand reparations on issues of race. Could you take us back into history looking at the calls for reparations in the United States?
Yes. The calls for reparations, even though it looks like this is a recent issue, they have been there since the 18th century. We had demands of reparations already by the time of the American revolutionary war after emancipation, led indeed by former slaves, people who are very old at the time created associations to petition the Congress to introduce a bill to give them pensions. Historian Mary Francis Berry, She wrote an entire book about one of the leaders of this movement, but at the end of the day, of course these voices weren't heard and after that you are going to have a number of times when these demands came back. In the 1960s, for example, with the decline of the civil rights movement as well, then by 68 /69 you are going to have, for example, James Forman.
news clip: (19:12)
The church itself owned slaves in many instances. And certainly the slave owners would go to church on a Sunday morning and pray to God but would whip our mothers and fathers with lashes on the backs on the next day.
It's important to highlight that James Forman disseminated a Black Manifesto requesting reparations to not only churches but also synagogues.
news clip: (19:34)
We make certain demands of the White racist christian church and the Jewish synagogues today. We're asking for $500 million in reparations.
And it's interesting because here again, with Georgetown, we are referring to the jesuits who owned the university, who created the university and the society of Jesus were greatest slave owners in the Americas and the catholic church in general, they were the greatest slave owners in the Americas after World War II, the most important element was that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust got some kind of financial reparations. You are going to get also the United States pushing Germany to pay reparations to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. We're already also talking about reparations to Asian Americans who were interned in camps during the second world war, by that time. In the last 20 years, we could say, Oh this discussion that we have in the United States have a lot of emphasis on renaming beauties, constructing monuments, constructing memorials. Then I think that people don't want necessarily anymore just to have a name on a building or a monument or a memorial, but they need to see tangible things happening.
Often reparations gets reduced to a conversation about a monument or honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or one of those issues. What's interesting about Georgetown University, is the students have voted for money -- a fee that every incoming student would pay, that would go into a monetary fund. Georgetown isn't alone though, in terms of being a prestigious institution with a history of slavery. Is this conversation over reparations also happening in other universities around the country?
In other universities, there is no discussion about financial reparations at this point. What is in discussion for many of these universities, because there are really many, studying their involvement with slavery, but indeed the Georgetown is the only one that has now a sort of a true initiative in terms of financial reparations, but again, those who are paying are not the jesuits or Georgetown administration, but these are the students themselves who are taking the initiative.
Something that was written last March in the Boston Globe by columnist Jeff Jacoby, an opinion piece about reparations and then it was tweeted by Jeff. "Slavery was a hideous evil, but the time for reparations is when victims are alive, when those who themselves were abused can be offered redress. Living White Americans are not culpable for slavery, living Black Americans never endured it." What's your response to that?
I disagree with this idea because everybody who lived in the Americas, who are not the decendants of enslaved people, they benefit from the wealth generated by slavery directly or indirectly. Now, regarding those enslaved people, if they are no longer alive, we have material in terms of the history of this tragedy to show that indeed the descendants, they are alive, but when the very victims were still alive, there were no measures to address that injustice. Then this is an argument that has been brought, perhaps from the legal point of view, it can work, but from a political point of view, it doesn't work.
You've written extensively about slavery and reparations in the United States, but you've also done a lot of research around slavery in other parts of the Americas. Could you talk about reparations efforts in other countries and where they stand compared to the conversation happening in the U.S.?
Speaker 10: (23:56)
Along with the United States, Brazil is the country that imported the largest number of enslaved Africans, almost 5 million, during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Brazil has the largest population of African descent today, Brazil put in place, about 30 years ago, through its constitution, measures that would benefit populations of African descent. In Brazil, there is still a program that gives the right of land ownership to Black communities who have been occupying these lands for a certain period of time -- who can prove that they have been occupying this land since the period of emancipation. We have similar issues. For example, in Ecuador and also in Columbia. In the early 1990s we had a group of Black students in one Brazilian university who created a group, demanding reparations for slavery, for a petition to introduce a bill in the Congress demanding reparations, and in the case of Brazil and in Columbia as well, in places such as Cuba, Black women, they all were very, very important in the leadership of these initiatives. Still today we have Black women who are leading these demands and especially in these Black communities who are demanding the ownership of land. Black women are the crucial social actors.
I have learned so much from listening to you. I think that people who make change often bring superpowers to it. What's your superpower?
I think that as a historian, you know that I don't have any hopes that I can do much with the work that I do, but I think that my superpower is that I am persistent. I love to talk about things that make people uncomfortable and I think that as far as having justice in the world that we live in, we should continue pointing out these injustices. Then this is what I try to do with my work.
Professor Araujo, thank you for speaking with us.
Thank you for having me.
Speaker 1: (26:16)
Ana Luisa Araujo is a professor of history at nearby Howard University. Her latest book is titled "Reparations in Slavery and Atlantic Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History." She joined us from NPR studios in Washington, DC.
I never thought that I'd see this country engage in a serious conversation about reparations. I'm so inspired by the leadership of the students at Georgetown University. I am moved to see mainstream politicians finally recognize the need to reckon with the shameful history of slavery and the continuing harm inflicted on Black people. Of course, reparations will face ferocious resistance, but reparations are essential if we hope to remove the stain on our national soul and create a fully inclusive society. We need a commission to figure out a fair, just process and formula for reparations, but any plan must include three key elements. 1) truth telling; 2) formal apology.; 3) meaningful compensation is payment for the brutal oppression of Black people and as an act of healing and racial reconciliation. It will also require a bold policy agenda focused on education, good jobs, and other essentials for overcoming the legacy of racism.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell Join us again next time and in the meantime you can find us firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to subscribe and share.
Speaker 12: (28:32)
Next time on Radical Imagination, we hear from the people who are working to address the lack of access to clean and running water right here in one of the richest nations in the world.
news clip: (28:43)
The very same communities that we see struggling with access to safe, affordable water right now are the same communities that are on the frontlines of climate change.
That's next on Radical Imagination.
Angela Glover Blackwell, Host.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink.
The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo.
The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel.
Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira.
Radical Imagination podcast is powered by PolicyLink.
We May Be the First People to Receive Reparations for Slavery
Georgetown University is one of the country’s top-ranked schools and has a roughly $1.6 billion endowment. But in 1838, the university was facing financial ruin. So the Jesuit priests, who ran Georgetown, sold 272 enslaved people to three plantations in Louisiana for $115,000 — or the equivalent of about $3.3 million in today’s dollars to keep their doors open. That’s how the ancestors of DaVita Robinson, Valerie White, Maxine Crump — all descendants of the 272 — ended up in Louisiana.
And now, they may become the first people in the history of the United States to receive reparations for slavery.