Some say that past secrets are best left unexposed, remnants of by-gone days with no relevance to the present or future. But when Xavier University Theology Professor C. Walker Gollar, PhD, and his students discovered ugly facts about one of the founders of Xavier and the namesake for its newest and largest residence hall, exposing the truth was just the beginning.
It all started with an email in August 2016 from Xavier President Michael J. Graham, S.J., to Gollar about his research into Bishop Edward Fenwick’s connection to slavery. Gollar and his students discovered that Fenwick had personally owned slaves in the early 1800s in Maryland and Kentucky. Gollar also discovered that a significant portion of tuition from Xavier’s early students came from slave-holding families.
Xavier is not alone in having its founding so closely connected to slaveholding. In the early 1800s, many Catholics and many with higher education and financial means held slaves. But the revelation was disturbing because Fenwick holds a prominent place in the history of Xavier and of Catholicism in Cincinnati.
He was the first Bishop in Ohio, and he founded the Athenaeum, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the state. In 1840, the Jesuits took over the Athenaeum and renamed it St. Xavier College after St. Francis Xavier, which later became Xavier University.
In 2011, Fenwick’s name was resurrected when the second largest building, a residence hall, opened in the center of campus and was named Fenwick Place to honor the Bishop. It’s home to 535 students and includes a dining room where hundreds of students, faculty and staff gather throughout the day.
Graham wanted the Xavier community to have a deeper, broader and transparent discussion about Fenwick and his ties to slavery. He encouraged Gollar to share and continue his research, even awarding him additional funding.
Gollar and his students gave several talks on campus that addressed Xavier’s ties to slavery and racism. By examining Xavier’s own history, including the decision to name a building for Fenwick, the Xavier community was asked to discern if and how to seek justice today given a not-quite-perfect past.
As a result, Graham and Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion Janice Walker, PhD, appointed the Working Committee on Xavier’s Connection with Slavery, chaired by Kyra Shahid, Associate Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Kathleen Smythe, Professor and Chair of the Department of History. In January 2018, the 12-member working group submitted a list of recommendations to Graham, offering advice and recommendations on how the University should acknowledge and respond to its historical connection to slavery.
Three recommendations that spoke to the urgency and necessity for broad and deep response emerged from their work and community-wide listening sessions: Create opportunities on campus for more community engagement around the topic; expand the research on Xavier’s history and amend 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.
The working group is executing all of these recommendations in a variety of ways over the course of the next three years, including establishing the “Day of R.E.A.D.: Reflection, Education, Awareness, Discernment.” On Sept. 17, nearly 200 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members packed the President’s board room to continue the process of planning for racial reconciliation in light of Xavier’s history with slavery and racism.
“What should the response of a University that comes from a deep faith tradition be?” Graham asked the crowd during his welcome.
Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, delivered the keynote address. Harris is the author of three books on slavery in the U.S. and co-founded the Transforming Community Project (TCP) at Emory University. TCP was formed about 15 years ago after a series of racially charged issues at Emory. It includes community dialogue, curriculum development, programming, reflection and an annual event called “Experiencing Race at Emory.”
“You are fortunate to have a president who has taken leadership on this issue,” she told the Day of R.E.A.D. participants. “That’s not always the case.”
She said awareness of the ties to slavery and racism is the first step toward change and challenged members of the Xavier community to think about “how will I do things differently because I know about this?”
Following Harris’s address, participants broke into groups of 10 and were asked to discuss three questions: What could racial reconciliation look like at a Jesuit Institution, How has Xavier been welcoming or unwelcoming in a racialized context, and What questions should we ask ourselves in order to move forward?
Responses were captured and will be shared on a webpage with the campus community. Some common themes include changing the name of Fenwick Place, creating more spaces and opportunities for this type of dialogue, and discerning how we as a campus community will measure success as we work together in this often uncomfortable space.
The Day of R.E.A.D. will become an annual event at Xavier for at least the next three years. Another event sponsored by the Working Committee on Xavier’s Connection with Slavery is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 8. Students who participated in a two-week racial healing and leadership development experience in Senegal called Diasporic Soul will share their experiences at 7:00 p.m. in Arrupe Overlook located in the Gallagher Student Center.