Descendants of the enslaved who built SLU say the institution owes them up to $74 billion
Descendants of enslaved Black people who helped Jesuit missions in Missouri, including by constructing St. Louis University, have estimated that the institution’s stolen labor is worth between $361 million and $74 billion.
Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved called on the Jesuit university Thursday to live up to its commitments made in the 2016 Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project. It revealed that the Jesuits were prohibited from beating their slaves, but beatings and family separation were still used as harsh punishment. The report also stated the descendants should lead the institution's conversations around repair. Descendants also requested Thursday that they play an integral role with SLU to help make decisions about atonement.
The large sum of money calculated for stolen labor does not account for the pain and suffering of Henrietta Mills Chauvin and other enslaved Black people brought to St. Louis to help build the school, said Areva Martin, the descendants' attorney.
“We do know that providing this valuation gives us a starting point to start talking about reconciliation,” Martin said during a press conference. “It starts with recognizing your obligation to discord even a fraction of the value of their ancestors' labor that was used to build this storied institution.”
In 2019, university officials and descendants were collaborating on ways to repay and honor the enslaved for the institution's past harms. However, the coronavirus pandemic stalled the in-person work, and when it resumed in 2021, descendants say they were not included in any more conversations.
SLU’s communications office said it does not have a response for the estimated value of stolen labor that was presented during the event.
“SLU’s participation in the institution of slavery was a grave sin,” said Clayton Berry, a spokesperson for the university. “We acknowledge that progress on our efforts to reconcile with this shameful history has been slow, and we regret the hurt and frustration this has caused.”
Berry said the university hopes to reestablish and build deeper relationships with the descendant families to better explore how to honor the memory of those enslaved by the Jesuits.
From 1823 to 1865, the Jesuits at the Missouri mission borrowed, rented and owned over 150 enslaved people. In 1823, they took three enslaved families from the White Marsh Plantation in Maryland and brought them to Florissant. The enslaved people helped build the St. Stanislaus seminary and plantation. In 1829, more slaves came from Maryland to Missouri, and that same year the Jesuits took over St. Louis College, which later became St. Louis University, where some enslaved people were forced to work.
When Lynette Jackson drives by SLU, she often thinks of the harsh labor her ancestors endured while helping build the university. Jackson found out that she was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Mills Chauvin in 2019.
“It just makes me feel sad that they had to go through this and knowing that it was the church involved as well, and we helped to build the church, you wouldn't think that a church would do this,” Jackson said.
She wants the university to erect statues in front of the buildings that the enslaved people helped construct. Jackson is upset that the university benefited from the labor and that her family has not been compensated.
“The amounts that we’re talking about start at $361 million and go up to $70 billion depending on the interest rate – 3% on the low end and 6% on the high end,” Malveaux said.
She stated at the event that the estimated wages do not account for “pain and suffering, for rapes, for bodily mutilation. … It just accounts for the actual wage.”
Brown, Yale, Harvard and Georgetown universities have started to investigate their relationships with slavery, but none of the institutions has calculated the value of the slave labor used to build the universities or the wealth accumulated, Martin said.
“We say to St. Louis University today, you know who the descendants are, you now have information required to make true reconciliation, to right a grievous wrong, to make history,” she said.
State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, called on SLU officials to look at the restorative justice work of other universities to inspire proper acknowledgement of the institution’s history with enslaved people and how to pay for past harms.
“Today is the first step in righting this wrong, and it is a chance for St. Louis University to begin reconciling with their own past with their success, and with the descendants of the enslaved Black Americans who laid the bricks we walk on today,” said May, who is a SLU alumna.
Mills Chauvin is also an ancestor of Robin Proudie, who leads the Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved group. Proudie received a letter in 2019 from researchers with SLU’s slavery project stating that her ancestor was owned by the Jesuits at St. Louis University.
Proudie said the descendants want to be a part of the SLU community, which is why they are urging officials to open the door to communication with them to help with restorative justice efforts on behalf of their ancestors.
“Our ancestors deserve to be taken from the darkness and brought into the light,” Proudie said.