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Commencement 2019

Graduating Descendant of Enslaved Ancestors Clinches ABC News Reporter Job

May 15, 2019 – When Elizabeth Thomas (G’19) crosses the stage to get her graduate degree during Commencement later this week, she says she’ll be thinking about her ancestors.

Thomas, who will receive her master’s of professional studies in journalism Friday from the School of Continuing Studies, has been hired as an ABC News reporter.

She is a descendant of Sam and Betsy Harris, two of the more than 270 enslaved individuals who were sold in 1838 by the Maryland Jesuits.

Elizabeth Thomas stands outside with the door to the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies in the background.

Thanking Her Ancestors

“I’ll be mostly thanking my ancestors for providing me with this opportunity, and then I'll be thinking about my future as a journalist,” says Thomas, a 2015 graduate of Louisiana State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. “What I've learned from this institution will help carry me on into my career of a lifetime.”

Thomas began an internship with ABC in January, was promoted to desk assistant in February, and just got offered a full-time job as a reporter.

“I’ll be doing some narrative storytelling,” Thomas explains, “taking these big issues and finding interesting characters to tell them through. While there’s definitely a place for the who-what-when-where-and-why stories, but I want write about how policies actually affect people.”

Pain and Motivation

The New Orleans native already has written several pieces for ABC.

In a column last month, Thomas wrote about how she and her family thought they originated in Louisiana until her mother, Sandra Thomas, read The New York Times article in April 2016 that detailed the 1838 sale of their ancestors to plantation owners in the deep south.

While the discovery has been a source of pain for the family, it also has been a source of motivation. Elizabeth Thomas’ younger brother, Shepard Thomas (C’20), is an undergraduate at the university.

“I feel like I owe my ancestors excellence, and I owe my family and friends excellence, because they have been a nonstop support system for me,” Elizabeth Thomas says. “So I definitely have much more of a drive and a focus and a path forward coming through this program.”

William Harris Sr.

William Harris Sr. was the son of Sam and Betsy Harris and Elizabeth's great-great grandfather. Harris created the first Catholic Church for people of color in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, as well as an associated school for children

 

Deep Connection

Thomas has three other siblings – older brother Winand, who works with special needs children in New Orleans, and younger sisters Julia, an actress in Los Angeles, and Alice, who studies at the University of Southern California, all of whom will be at Commencement. She also has four half-siblings.

Her father, Joseph, who passed away when she was an eighth-grader, once had a law practice in Georgetown, and the family lived for a number of years on O Street.

They were close enough to the university for her mother to push her and her older brother in strollers around the campus. The soon-to-be Georgetown alumna says her mother felt a deep connection to the area that she only understood after The New York Times article came out.

‘Amazing Professors’

The program Elizabeth Thomas will graduate from gave her a lot of confidence in her own journalistic abilities, she says.

“I was fortunate enough to have some amazing, amazing professors that have taught me new skills, pushed me forward and some amazing classmates who come from all across the world and who have helped inform the way I think about certain issues and the way I address certain things,” Thomas explains.

“I'm really, really fortunate to say that I have a great cohort, a great graduating class and that the future of journalism is bright," she adds. "I thank Georgetown for providing me with this opportunity to be surrounded with such amazing people.” 

For her capstone project, Thomas profiled Howard University students who provide activities and mentorship to young people in a juvenile detention center in DC. Her classmates, impressed with her work, recently presented her with a Community/Social Impact Award.

A Great Journalist

One of the journalists who taught Thomas at SCS was Georgetown alumna Angela M. Hill (B’95), a national investigative producer with Scripps News’ Washington Bureau.

Hill says Thomas always went the extra mile to check facts, ask additional questions and think carefully about ethical issues when they arose.

“She is a wonderful example of a young journalist who is committed to expanding her understanding of and skills in the craft,” Hill says. “I believe she will go on to do great things in the field of journalism.”

Going Far

Had The New York Times never reported on the 1838 sale of her ancestors, Thomas says she would not have thought to come to Georgetown.

Since September 2016, the university has had a policy to provide descendants the same care and attention in the admissions process as children of faculty, staff and alumni.

“An opportunity presented itself and she maximized it through her passion and determination,” Hill says of her former student. “While she is representative of the students we have at Georgetown who are smart and full of curiosity, she stands out as someone with a positive attitude and creative ideas who's open to guidance and constantly striving to grow.” 

Thomas hopes one day to become a coordinating producer or editor, “someone who is able to shape the coverage of the newsroom and can help decide what stories matter and what stories are important.”

“I think she’s going to go very far,” Hill says.