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Slaves played role in history of SLU

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons

Georgetown University made headlines last week when it announced it would make amends for selling 272 slaves in 1838, a transaction worth $3 million in today’s economy.

The slaves were shipped from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to Louisiana — and some accompanied Jesuits in 1823 to a small school in St. Louis that would become Saint Louis University. There, according to an account, they helped build what would grow into the university.

Asked for reaction to the university’s role in the slavery story, a spokesman issued this statement:
“As SLU prepares for its bicentennial in 2018, the University is engaged in an in-depth look at its history. This research includes an examination of its involvement with slavery.

“We are early in this process; we don’t have anything to share at this time.”

According to a story earlier this year in The Hoya, a student publication that serves as Georgetown’s newspaper of record, the Jesuits who made the trip from Maryland to Missouri brought half a dozen slaves with them — three married couples who were forced to leave their children behind.

When they arrived in St. Louis, they went to Florissant Farm, near what later became Ferguson. There, the story said, they “were crammed into a single cabin under awful conditions. They worked from five in the morning to the evening. The Jesuits whipped and beat the slaves, especially Fr. Charles Felix Van Quickenborne, S.J., the leader of the contingent who was nicknamed ‘Napoleon.’ ”

One of the slaves who had been brought from Maryland, Thomas Brown, wrote to the provincial of the Maryland Jesuits in 1833, pleading to be allowed to purchase his freedom, the account said.

He was “desperately seeking to escape Saint Louis University and its president, Fr. Peter J. Verhaegen, S.J.,” the story added.

“ ‘We live at present in a rotten log house so old and decayed that at every blast of wind we are afraid of our lives,’ Brown wrote, as winter approached. He continued: ‘Father Verhaegen wants me and my wife to live in the loft of one of the outhouses where there is no fireplace. … Cold will kill both me and my wife here.’ ”

The original families brought to St. Louis grew, the Hoya story said, and “the Jesuits set the slaves building the institution” that became the university, which traces its founding back to 1818. St. Louis Jesuits wrote several times asking Maryland to send more slaves, which brought more families to Missouri.

From there, slaves accompanied Jesuits who moved on to Kentucky. Eventually, the article said, “Jesuits built a slaveholding network that extended its tendrils into the heart of the country.”

In 1862, during the Civil War but before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Jesuits had 24 slaves in St. Louis, the article said.

To atone for its role in the spread of slavery, Georgetown University President John DeGioiaannounced last week  that the school is instituting a number of policies including making it easier for descendants of the original slaves to be admitted to the university.

The university also announced a number of actions, including an apology for its historical relationship with slavery; plans to rename a building in memory of one of the original slaves sold by the Jesuits; and creation of an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.