Higher Education

PODCAST: How colleges and universities are acknowledging their slaveholding pasts

A 63-year-old descendant of slaves sold to save Georgetown University will be a member of this year's freshman class

It’s no secret that many of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and the universities along the eastern seaboard have historic ties to slavery. But until recently, it was a history that many institutions seemed content to leave behind. Now, a new movement is calling for colleges and universities to acknowledge and atone for their slaveholding pasts.

As part of this process, last year, Georgetown University announced that it would give “legacy status” to people who are descended from the 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 to get the school out of a financial bind. That gives the descendants a leg up when they apply to the school. This week on the podcast, we hear from Mélisande (Meli) Short-Colomb, one of the first descendants to take Georgetown up on the offer. Kate Ellis.

Meli’s 63 years old. This fall, she’ll be leaving her job as a professional chef and leaving all her friends and family behind to become a part of Georgetown’s class of 2021. She’ll be staying in the dorms.

When Meli Colomb enters Georgetown University as a freshman, it won’t be the first time she sets foot on the campus. Back in April, the university held a ceremony to offer a formal apology to the descendants of the men, women and children who were sold to shore up the school’s finances. President Jack DeGioia spoke, as did Jesuit officials and some of the descendants. The ceremony was followed by the renaming of two buildings that bore the names of Georgetown’s slaveholding priests.

Georgetown is going to cover Meli Colomb’s tuition, room and board. Still, she and other descendants wonder if the university should be doing more for folks in their community. To learn more about Meli’s story and what it was like to open up that acceptance letter from Georgetown, listen to the podcast via the player above, or better yet, subscribe to Educate.

Georgetown isn’t the only university wrestling with these sorts of questions. Over the past decade, some of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious universities — such as Harvard, Brown, and the University of Virginia — have been trying to figure out how to address and atone for their historic ties to slavery. Historians say that all of the colleges and universities founded in this country’s early years either participated in — or at least benefited from — slavery. We’ll go more deeply into these stories in our upcoming documentary on slavery and higher education, Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade. You’ll be able to hear it on the podcast Sept. 4. It’s one of four new education documentaries we’re going to release in a couple of weeks.

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