Elizabeth Thomas thought her family history began and ended in Louisiana, where she grew up and earned her bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State. Then a 2016 New York Times story led her mother, Sandra Thomas, to discover that their ancestors had been two of 272 slaves sold for the profit of Georgetown University in 1838. Sandra texted Elizabeth and her five siblings a link to the story and told them to read it immediately. “When I first read the article, I didn’t even think, ‘Oh, what can I get from Georgetown?’ Elizabeth Thomas says. “I just thought, ‘This is part of my family history that I never knew.’”
Now, Elizabeth and her younger brother Shepard will complete what she calls a “crazy circle of life.” They will attend Georgetown this fall as Shepard, 19, transfers from LSU to study engineering and Elizabeth, 23, pursues a master’s degree in journalism.“D.C. is where my whole history begins,” Elizabeth Thomas tells USA TODAY College. “It’s a sad beginning, but now, the circle of life has brought us back here and given us an amazing opportunity to further our education at a prestigious school.” Before she found out that her great-great-grandparents, Sam Harris and Betsy Ware Harris, were sold to help Georgetown pay off its debts, Thomas planned to remain in New Orleans and work on political campaigns in the region.
But when Georgetown announced in September that it would award “preferential status” in the admissions process to descendants of slaves who worked for or were sold by the school, Thomas decided to apply. “Now that I have the opportunity to further my degree and get some letters behind my name, I’m like, “Okay, I’m definitely going to go for this,” she says.
While she says she is grateful for the opportunity to attend Georgetown, she believes the university can do more for descendants by offering them scholarships and a clearer way for applicants to indicate that they are descendants. University officials offered a formal apology for the school’s role in slavery in April, among other moves, but have stopped short of offering financial assistance to descendants.
“Being admitted into the school is amazing and awesome,” Thomas says. “However, I’m going to have to go into debt to go to this school.” She wonders, “Is that really fair? I’m definitely looking forward to having conversations with them to push them to do more.”
When it comes to fellow students who may believe that the descendants are not owed anything by Georgetown, Thomas says she’s not worried about them. “Look, I’m here. You may not be here if it wasn’t for my ancestors, so if anything you should be giving me a thank you,” she says. “What’s the difference between me being there because I’m a descendant [of a slave sold by the college] and you being there because your parents paid for it?”
Her work experience may be in politics, but Thomas says that her passion lies in journalism, especially after the Times story revealed her family history and led her to attend Georgetown. “If it wasn’t for the New York Times and other media outlets, like USA TODAY, if it wasn’t for them writing this story and putting public pressure on the university to do something, I probably would not be attending this school,” Elizabeth says. “It just makes me have a greater appreciation for journalism and makes me know that I’m pursuing the right degree.”
This article was first publsihed on USATODAY COLLEGE.