Descendants of people enslaved by SLU’s Jesuits want their ancestors honored
Robin Proudie can feel the presence of her ancestors as she walks through St. Louis University’s campus.
More than 70 enslaved individuals helped establish and sustain Jesuit missions in Missouri, including laboring at SLU in the 19th century. Proudie can trace her ancestry directly to that group, as well as people enslaved by Jesuits in Maryland. She wants SLU to do more to recognize them.
Although her ancestors never had a choice about their labor, she argues that they have been denied recognition, and respect, for their contributions.
“I'm actually proud that they were instrumental to [SLU’s] expansion,” Proudie told St. Louis on the Air. “We see [former SLU President Peter] Verhaegan and the 10 presidents who enslaved our ancestors being honored. [We are] going … to make sure that our voices and our ancestors are going to be honored as well.”
Proudie received a letter from the Slavery History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project in 2019 informing her of her connection. After meeting other descendants and newly discovered family members, Proudie founded Descendants of St. Louis University Enslaved in order to commemorate her ancestors.
“We thought that … the voices of our ancestors, we got to speak for them. They're not just nameless souls. That is the reason we decided to come together to organize,” Proudie said.
In August, Proudie’s organization, DSLUE, launched a petition calling on the university to honor enslaved people’s labor by erecting a monument on campus. She argued that a physical marker would formally acknowledge the role of enslaved people in building SLU.
Proudie met with SLU President Fred Pestello in 2021. Nearly four years later, she said not much progress has been made by the university.
In a statement, SLU wrote they are grateful to DSLUE and are “committed to building deeper relationships with all descendant families to explore how best to honor the enslaved and their descendants.”
In addition to a monument, descendants want the history of their ancestors to be incorporated into the classroom curriculum. Correcting historical narratives is at the heart of reparative work, said Christopher Tinson, chair of African American Studies department.
Tinson has invited Proudie to guest teach his class multiple times, and often, students are shocked to learn the history of SLU’s ties to slavery, he said.
“Reparative justice … is a question of how we hold ourselves accountable to that history, accountable to the past and accountable to the future that we want to create,” he said.
Michael Brickey, a doctoral student at SLU, said there are various visual representations and historical timelines across the university, but none mention its relationship with slavery.
“I see this issue as essentially coming clean about SLU’s relationship with slavery as part of [SLU’s] higher purpose, greater good,” said Brickey, who is also working with DSLUE as an adviser. “If [SLU] wants to be true to that mission, this should be absolutely a fundamental part of that.”
Descendants like Proudie also want SLU to consider scholarships and compensation. Proudie said they want to be “integrated into the community just as the Jesuits are.”
“I have elders who I promised them that they will see something … I want them to be able to look and say, ‘wow, this is for our ancestors,’” Proudie said.
To learn more about Robin Proudie’s enslaved ancestors and how she is working with other descendants to honor them, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.