In 2016, local college students called public attention to what is believed to be the largest slave sale linked to an existing institution of higher education. In 1838 Jesuit priests, at what is now known as Georgetown University, sold 272 enslaved people. Recent scrutiny led to the creation of multiple groups and committees — some independent and some with university support — to determine if and what reparations should be made to the descendants of those sold.
Tristan Porter, one of the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold at what is now Georgetown University, where he is a current Georgetown student, leads a libation ceremony on Nov. 5. (Matthew Bailey/The Washington Informer)
“You never really think that you would be in that number,” said Tristan Porter, a senior at Georgetown majoring in liberal arts. “Two-hundred-seventy-two out of the millions and millions and millions that suffered through this form of human trafficking, I think is, divine intervention, I guess was what we’ll call it.”
Porter, 36, had to halt his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at Howard University due to financial constraints. However, his road to Georgetown was an interesting journey.
While living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina, Porter received an email from Richard Cellini, former leader of the Georgetown Memory Project, notifying him and his mother of their lineage linked to the 272 people sold by Georgetown University.
The Georgetown Memory Project (GMP), an independent research group, had identified 232 of the original 272 enslaved people, and over 10,000 living descendants by 2021, according to the latest update on their website.
Porter applied to Georgetown, believing his “descendant” status might bring additional financial aid. Although the GMP includes academic scholarships as part of its mission, Porter’s assumption proved incorrect. While no student descendants have yet received such scholarships, they are granted “legacy” status, akin to that given to children of donors or alumni.
Melisande Short-Colombe, who graduated in 2021, was among the first descendant students admitted to Georgetown. In 2017, a genealogist from the Georgetown Memory Project informed her of her heritage.
“Legacy status at any university or school is conferred on students whose families have made significant contributions to the university or come from long, multigenerational student backgrounds at the institution,” Short-Colombe explained. “So what did that mean for students who were descendants of those enslaved and trafficked by the institution? As an adult, I needed to find out what that meant.”
Despite her lineage, Short-Colombe did not receive scholarships specifically for descendants. Post-graduation, she took a position at the university, continuing to work “in community with Georgetown around its slavery, memory and reconciliation.”
More Efforts to Seek Reparations, Reconciliation
The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, affiliated with Georgetown University and the Jesuit church, was established in response to the revelations about the 272 enslaved people who were sold. The foundation has stated it “is not pursuing reparations in the sense of individual payments.” Instead, it is committed to “investing in the educational aspirations of descendants and future generations and in pursuing truth, reconciliation, and transformation in the human family.”
In October, the foundation, in partnership with the GU272 Descendants Association, announced $27 million in new funding. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is slated to administer some of these funds in the form of scholarships for descendants starting in fall 2024.
While the specifics of scholarship distribution and eligibility are yet to be detailed, the 2024 academic year is poised to be the first in which descendants could receive dedicated scholarships at Georgetown and other universities nationwide.
Nonetheless, Porter and other student advocates press for more action from the university, such as increasing awareness of the 272’s history and establishing physical memorials on campus.
“They’ve taken some steps to kind of rectify, or right the wrongs if you will, but there’s certainly a lot more that could be done,” Porter said.
In line with these efforts, the student organization Hoyas Advocating for Slavery Accountability (HASA) held a libation ceremony by the Reiss Science Building, which was erected over an old graveyard, which included enslaved people of Georgetown, who died before the sale.
Porter served as master of ceremonies for the event, featuring speeches and entertainment. Short-Colombe included among the speakers and there was a performance by singer-songwriter Jordan Curls.
Freshman Dream Champell Aldrich, a biology major, joined HASA after learning about this history during orientation.
“This school wouldn’t exist, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the enslaved people who labored, worked, and died here,” Aldrich said.
Source: Washington Informer