A few weeks ago, at the unlikely age of 63, Melisande Short-Colomb packed her possessions into boxes at her New Orleans home on Upperline Street and sent them to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She began classes there Wednesday as a freshman.

But her story is remarkable for much more than her age.

In 1838, facing bankruptcy, the Jesuit priests who established Georgetown kept the school afloat by selling 272 slaves from their tobacco fields in Maryland to a pair of Louisiana plantation owners.

Among those slaves were Short-Colomb’s great-great-grandparents, Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen.


Former chef, Melisande Short-Colomb, 63, poses for a photo in her kitchen before she leaves New Orleans for Georgetown University, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. Short-Colomb was accepted to Georgetown University as a freshman history student after Georgetown offered preferential admissions to descendants of slaves sold by Jesuits in 1838.

Thanks to student protests and the work of dogged genealogists, about 3,000 people like Short-Colomb, many in New Orleans and the surrounding region, have discovered the intimate and troubled connection between the suffering of their ancestors and the financial survival of one of the country’s premier universities.

Georgetown two years ago began an effort to confront the school’s past and atone for the sale, one of the largest slave sales in U.S. history. One step was to offer descendants like Short-Colomb so-called “legacy status,” putting them on the same footing as the children of alumni in the admissions process.

“It’s a key moment in Georgetown’s history,” said Karran Harper Royal, a longtime education advocate in New Orleans whose own family can trace its lineage to the Georgetown sale.

As leader of a group called the GU272 Descendants Association, Harper Royal estimates there are more than 800 descendants of the sale living in the New Orleans area.

When Short-Colomb applied to Georgetown earlier this year, she was a little skeptical. “You can’t trust anyone who sold your family,” she said.

Yet somehow, going back to college felt like the right move for Short-Colomb, a retired chef and widow whose four children are grown. Since Hurricane Katrina, she said, she’s found herself restless and peripatetic, leaving town for long stints in Texas, Ghana and the Virgin Islands.

Now, through her work-study job in the campus library, which includes the newly created Georgetown Slavery Archive, Short-Colomb will help connect families torn apart during slavery.

She made her own connections in April, when she met a group of newfound relatives in Maryland. From them, she heard that an enslaved cousin named Louisa, tipped off by a priest, had avoided the trip by hiding in the woods for three or four days. “All she knew was that they were taken to somewhere known as Algiers,” Short-Colomb said.

Short-Colomb’s education has long been caught up in the question of race.

“My mother was holding me in her arms when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board decision,” said Short-Colomb, referencing the landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the court found that segregated schools for black and white children were unconstitutional.

Enforcement of that decision did not come quickly in New Orleans. When she attended McDonogh No. 6 Elementary School on Chestnut Street, it was still an all-black school. And she still worshiped at the all-black Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, in the sixth grade, her parents enrolled her at Sophie B. Wright Junior High, where nearly all of her teachers and many of her classmates were white. Bomb threats were common for the first few months of school, she said.

Suddenly, her world was no longer confined to the protective, tightly knit black community she’d known. “It was the first time I had teachers who didn’t know my name,” she said.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the pride that came with her name and her family’s deep roots in New Orleans.

Two public schools and the chapel at Dillard University bore the name of her mother’s uncle, the Rev. Alfred Lawless, a trailblazer for the education of black students in the city. Another public school was named for the Rev. Henderson Dunn, an educator who wrote about religion and schools for The Times-Picayune and was related to her by marriage.

Short-Colomb also knew she was descended from Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen, of Lafourche Parish, because her grandmother, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, was emphatic about making her recite the family oral history. “I called that ‘the begats,’ ” she said, referring to the term used in biblical genealogies.

She had been told that her Queen-family ancestors had sued their owners for their freedom in court, because their great-grandmother was an indentured servant who should have been let go once her period of indenture was over. As borne out by court records, their lawyer was none other than Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

She learned that her grandparents, lured by the possibility of farmland, had traveled by ship to New Orleans before the Civil War, then traveled to Terrebonne Parish on a river flatboat — “followed by alligators.”

“I knew all of my history,” Short-Colomb said.

So when genealogist Judy Riffel texted last year, asking if she was related to a Mahoney family from Baton Rouge, Short-Colomb responded with a long message.

“I sent her my whole pedigree,” said Short-Colomb, who then discovered something she didn’t know — that her branch of the Queen family had been unable to win their freedom and had been part of the 1838 sale. They had traveled to Terrebonne by flatboat, she said, but as someone else’s property.

“I knew everything about my family from 1838 to 2017. But I didn’t know enough about 1704 to 1838,” she said.

In the coming four years, she said, she hopes to discover more about those missing years, perhaps from some of the 200 boxes of records that remain to be digitized for the Slavery Archive. Over the next few years, all the documents in those boxes will be scanned and indexed by the names of those who were shipped to Louisiana as human cargo in 1838.

Along with the increasing use of DNA to find enslaved ancestors, this type of research promises to create another shift in the country’s racial landscape, by providing a deeper awareness of how slavery kept wealthy owners afloat while severing enslaved families.

“She is there (at Georgetown) to find out more about all of our families,” Harper Royal said. “Her journey is for all of us.”

Last week, before Georgetown’s convocation for new students, Short-Colomb choked back tears as academic marshal John Q. Pierce briefly stopped the faculty procession at her aisle and doffed his academic cap in her direction, a gesture “intended as a sign of respect for her and a recognition of the special status of all the descendants of the 272,” he later explained.

During the same convocation, Short-Colomb was invited to receive the Georgetown College banner, which she carried high, with her ancestors and her GU272 friends in mind, she said. 

Then, on Wednesday, as she walked to class amid a sea of 18-year-olds, Short-Colomb thought back to her childhood, when her grandmother, with much relish, would sit her down in the family house on Zimpel Street and make her recite “the begats.”

It was that woman, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, who put her granddaughter on the path that ended up at Georgetown, Short-Colomb said. “She is the reason I have a story.”