Georgetown University students hosted the first ever Slavery Remembrance Day event Sept. 10 to honor the horrific plight and servitude of enslaved persons and the work and strength of their descendants.
Hoyas Advocating for Slavery Accountability (HASA), Black Student Alliance (BSA), the GU Black Leadership Forum (BLF) and the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) presented the event in collaboration. Fully student-run and organized, the event honored the “indomitable spirits” who endured the hardships of slavery and served as a tribute to Slavery Remembrance Day in late August, which commemorates the arrival of the first enslaved individuals who were kidnapped and transported to Virginia from Africa on Aug. 20, 1619.
The night, split in three parts, reflected on the past of slavery, Georgetown’s connection to enslavement and future steps to make reparations and equality possible to the GU 272+ community, the descendants of enslaved persons Maryland Jesuits sold in 1838 to keep Georgetown financially afloat.
The event, held in Gaston Hall, opened with an acknowledgement of William Gaston’s connection to the institution of slavery. Gaston enslaved at least 163 people and rejected the principle of equal citizenship.
Part I, “The General Story: Reflecting on the Past,” featured remarks from Ana Lucia Araujo, an American historian, author and professor of American history at Howard University. Araujo’s work focuses on the history and memory of slavery.
“Few people know that the Catholic Church was not only deeply involved in the effort to slave trade, the Catholic Church was the largest single slave holder in the Americas,” Araujo said at the event.
In 1838, the Jesuits of Maryland, who ran Georgetown University, sold 314 enslaved people to pay off crippling university debt and financially sustain the school. University officials and scholars have acknowledged that Georgetown would not exist today without this sale.
“We resist evil by telling the stories of slavery,” Araujo said. “We resist evil by remembering enslaved men, women and children who toiled to build the Americas.”
Araujo’s remarks were followed by a performance from Âme Noire, a D.C. based R&B band consisting of Billi X, LaVeaux, Reginald James, Elias “Eli” Gerald and Victor “VJ” Blackwell. The group performed an extended instrumental segment with jazz influences.
Part II, “The Georgetown Story: Being Proactive V. Reactive,” featured Mélisande Short-Colomb and Elizabeth Thomas, two descendants of the GU 272+ community, who gave testimonies on their experience as descendants.
Thomas said she discovered she was a descendant of the GU 272+ after her mother found her great-great-great-grandparents on the original enslaved persons manifest following the New York Times’ coverage of GU272+. The Times’ article received national attention and served as the catalyst for a 2019 student referendum calling for an $27.20 increase in tuition to start a reparations program for descendants.
The university modified the referendum, instead starting a reconciliation fund for descendants and projects within the descendant community, such as holding descendant reunion events and starting an advisory group. Student groups and organizers like HASA are fighting for the university to institute more detailed and vigorous solutions for the descendant community, such as instituting permanent landmarks on campus.
“I know for certain that Sam and Betsy Harris never imagined during their time of brutal enslavement in the 1800s that their descendants, now three of us, have received degrees from the same institution that kept them in chains,” Thomas said at the event. “While Georgetown has taken some steps to atone for the sins of the past, there is still much more work to be done.”
Short-Colomb, a descendant of the Queen family, is the muse behind “Here I Am,” a play in collaboration with the Georgetown University Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics that serves as a tribute to the GU 272+ community.
“There are people today who are enslaved for the same reasons that people were enslaved and trafficked in 1838,” Short-Colomb said at the event. “Human nature doesn’t change. It has to change.”
The Council on Foreign Relations estimated that more than 40.3 million people today are still enslaved across the world.
Short-Colomb said enslaved persons survive with dignity and have lineages because their capacity for love triumphs all else.
“We are all ancestors in the making, you and your love and your young lives,” Short-Colomb said. “One day, a couple of centuries from today, people will look back, our descendants, and they’re going to remember you.”
Part II closed with an interpretive dance from the Black Movements Dance Theatre, backgrounded to “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo, a tribute song to Harriet Tubman, one of the leading Black abolitionist leaders who helped enslaved persons escape the South through the Underground Railroad.
Part III, “The Congressman Story,” featured keynote speaker Congressman Al Green, the U.S. Representative from Texas’ ninth congressional district. Green discussed his efforts to enshrine slavery remembrance into law like giving a Congressional Gold Medal to Africans and their descendants enslaved within the United States from Aug. 20, 1619, to Dec. 6, 1865, as well as renaming the Russell Senate Office Building.
Senator Richard Brevard Russell vehemently opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was the ringleader of the segregationist Southern Caucus.
“It’s not enough to talk about these things if you’re in a position to do something about it,” Green said at the event. “If talk could have resolved this issue, it would have been resolved. We have to do more than talk. Everyone has a role to play.”
Green said that the role of slavery remembrance in society should extend beyond just a day.
“Slavery remembrance is about more than just remembering,” Green said. “It is also about proper atonement. There’s a role for you to play as well. We must.”
Short-Colomb said that the memory of enslaved persons, through their love and work, should serve as a constant reminder of what is owed to history.
“If we take anything from our time here together today, it will be to remember that we have work to do,” Short-Colomb said.
Correction: This story was updated on 9/15 to update a typo of “Short-Columb” to “Short-Colomb.”