We remain quite busy here at Universities Studying Slavery (USS) headquarters–so many schools have begun important work investigating and reflecting on their own difficult histories. We are honored to have the opportunity to work with them and learn from them. Today, Xavier University in Ohio has joined the consortium. Members of the Xavier team will join the fall meeting at Tougaloo College in Mississippi (hosted by members Tougaloo College and the University of Mississippi)–please welcome them.
Xavier is a Jesuit Catholic University founded in 1831 by Bishop Edward Fenwick. In 2016, Theology Professor C. Walker Gollar’s research revealed that Fenwick had owned slaves and that a significant portion of the tuition paid by Xavier’s early students came from students whose parents had gained their finances in part through slave labor. This research began at the request of President Michael Graham, S.J. and these discoveries led to various campus-wide conversations and contemplations concerning institutional and communal response, particularly since the university’s newest residence hall is named Bishop Edward Fenwick Place.
In light of these discoveries, Fr. Graham encouraged Dr. Gollar to continue his research and stimulate a university-wide conversation. Dr. Gollar shared preliminary findings in spring 2017 and student researchers joined Gollar in summer 2017 to expand this research.
Simultaneously, Graham and Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion Janice Walker, PhD, appointed the Working Committee on Xavier’s Connection with Slavery, chaired by Dr. Kyra Shahid, Associate Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Dr. Kathleen Smythe, Professor and Chair of the Department of History. The group was charged with preparing a report for the President with advice and recommendations on how the University should acknowledge and respond to its historical connection to slavery, including Bishop Fenwick and slaveholding.
The Working Group believes that the relevancy of the university’s mission depends on the institutional and community response to this history. As a community of inquiry grounded in the Jesuit Catholic tradition, Xavier University is dedicated to fostering a culture of encounter that values the integration of knowledge and action. The richness of the Jesuit mission compels an institutional response that moves from recognition to reconciliation to reparation.
In January 2018, the 12-member working group submitted a list of recommendations to President Graham, which included three umbrella recommendations. After a series of community-wide sessions, the group proposed that Xavier: create opportunities on campus for more community engagement around its history; expand the research on Xavier’s history and amending it to include the role of slavery; and create permanent and visible activities that work toward creating a different future for victims of our nation’s racialized history and institutions.
Those recommendations were approved in the spring and a series of initiatives have begun and will continue over the next three years. As Stanford historian James Campbell sagely reminded all of us this week, “Don’t simply point your finger accusingly at the past,” and don’t be afraid of it.” Universities are truth-seeking institutions. Honor that fact.” Xavier University‘s report and recommendations are perfectly in line with where this growing international movement of schools stands right now–we know that the next year is likely to bring multi-institution atonement and repair programs.