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Race at SLUH / SLUH reflects on its racial past

Whether it be the Dred Scott case in the 1840s and 1850s, the Civil War in the 1860s, redlining, or the civil rights movement, St. Louis U. High has existed through the most turbulent times in the nation’s racial history. In the past century, the school has made strides that the founders would have thought inconceivable. However, turbulence came over the summer following the consecutive deaths of three unarmed African Americans.  Students, members of the faculty Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and PACES decided that the moment was right to unite and find ways to end racism within the bounds of SLUH. 

Past 

The calls for racial equality have not always sounded through the halls of SLUH, however. According to Director of Equity and Inclusion, Frank Kovarik, the ambivilant relationship between SLUH and people of color can be divided into three phases; the first being slavery. 

Bishop DuBourg, who founded SLUH in 1818, was a slave owner. He lent his slaves to the Vincentian Priests who first staffed the school. When the Jesuits came to SLUH in the late 1820s, they brought with them slaves from Maryland whom they kept enslaved until 1865.  

“In terms of the time period, it was normal for people to have slaves. The overall situation of slavery and the climate that slavery created is what really hurts me. I’m more hurt slavery was created than that SLUH indivdually participated in slavery,” said senior Albert Harrold. 

The second chapter is characterized by the exclusion of black students. While slavery ended in 1865, SLUH did not admit a black student until John Carter in 1946, over 80 years later. Even though pioneers like Al Thomas, ’50 and Eldrige Moran, ’51 continued to come through the doors of Oakland Avenue, the numbers were relatively small. 

“I would characterize that as an era of black courage and achievement but in small numbers,” said Kovarik.

Upward Bound was created during this period in 1966 to prepare students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for the college prep environment of SLUH. 

While the numbers increased slowly, SLUH worked to reach out to students of color and generate a student body that more closely reflected the demographics of the city in which the school was located. In 1991, the board of trustees released the Minority Action Plan. The 6-page document had three areas of focus: reaffirm the school’s dedication to Upward Bound; reaffirm the importance of the Organization of Black Achievement, which eventually became ACES; and recruit more minority faculty members.

“Over the past 30 years (since the Minority Action Plan), we have had modest efforts to create racial diversity equity and inclusion here,” said Kovarik. “It hasn’t been a steady upward trajectory but I think we have had modest efforts. We have had some successes, but also some periods of time where we have not had as much progress.” 

 

Present 

Following the unarmed deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery—all African Americans—and the unrest that followed their deaths, it became clear to Kovarik that something had to be done.

“The events of the last five or six years, some of the disciplinary issues we have had in recent years, and certainly the events of this past summer have been catalytic events that have kicked us into a new era of racial diversity equity and inclusion efforts  here at SLUH,” said Kovarik. “I certainly didn’t feel like the response needed to be mine alone so I tried to bring together people to think about what SLUH’s response could look like.”

Kovarik’s first step was mobilizing the faculty Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Through their discussions, the summer incarnation of the Voices of SLUH series was born. However, instead of the traditional written medium, these reflections were all through video. 

Voices of SLUH moderator Kate Toussaint was tapped to organize the project, and received help and input from other faculty members such as Kovarik, campus minister Simonie Anzalone, English teacher Adam Cruz, college counselor Daniel Shields, and Assistant Principal for Mission Jim Linhares. Linhares’s son Will, ’10,  volunteered his video editing skills.

“We had this idea to have first person narratives, but it just sort of evolved from there,” said Toussaint. “The great thing is that we let our students shine and show their voices.”

The first reflection came from Ryan Hopkins, ’16 who discussed the time he encountered a police officer at a park, only for the tense situation to be diffused by his SLUH hockey hoodie, and related that experience to a film he made. The second video in the installment came from current juniors Xavier Jallow Turner and Ismael (Ish) Karim, who reflected on their run-in with a man who targeted them with racist statements. The third was a collaboration between current seniors Carter Fortman and Albert Harrold, who discussed their interracial friendship, and how white people can be allies. The fourth was from current senior Cory Lyles who discussed his hope for an improved future. The fifth featured Jack Callahan ’18 who discussed his work with his fraternity to encourage The University of Alabama to acknowledge their prejudiced past. The sixth came from parent Chris Brooks who discussed two stories from his past where he was racially profiled. The seventh came from Daniel Heard, ’04, who discussed action and education within the struggle for racial equality. In the final episode, Joshua Saleem, ’02, discussed the acronym ALLY to explain the best way to be an ally with the movement.

The project was initially only supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up extending to two months. 

“It was way better, way stronger, way more powerful than what I had personally envisioned,” said Toussaint. 

“As the Director (of Equity and Inclusion) I don’t feel I have all the answers, I feel like my job is to solicit and bring together the voices of our community and help coordinate those efforts,” said Kovarik. “The Voices of SLUH was a way for the community to process and think about, for people to tell their stories and to give students and families the chance to think about these things in a prayerful and spiritual way.”

An additional step that Kovarik took was to meet with the PACES (Parents Association for Cultural Enrichment at SLUH) to find out how they were feeling about the current events. 

In response to the killing of George Floyd, PACES held a virtual meeting to discuss what their members were feeling after the killing and also what PACES and SLUH can do as a whole to help the members in this difficult time. 

“It was a really fantastic conversation,” said parent Joycelyn Barnes “The people really expressed how serious this is, and the thought of what if this had happened to a loved one—a fear that this is still happening. I’m glad that we were able to provide that opportunity for a conversation amongst the parents.”

 

Future

Moving forward, Kovarik, PACES, and the faculty Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hope to use his momentum to improve diversity here at SLUH. 

“Our goal is to have transparent conversations about racism and how it is a real sickness in our world and in our city and in our school,” said Toussaint, who, along with moderating Voices of SLUH, will be moderating the Anti-Racist Coalition.

Three things that Kovarik sees need improvement are more minority representation within faculty, more minority representation in the student body, and continued refinement of the curriculum to improve the diversity. 

“We have a relatively new subcommittee of the board of trustees that is dedicated to Equity and Inclusion and that committee is working on a new vision and plan for DEI efforts at SLUH,” said Kovarik. “I am excited about this being a marker of SLUH entering into the next chapter in its history which I hope will be a very positive one and one that sees a lot of needed changes that make SLUH more racially equitable and inclusive.”

Minority enrollment has increased despite still falling short of the demographics of St. Louis City. Between 1946-1991, African American students, who are the most drastically underrepresented group, generally comprised between 1-2 percent of the total enrollment. Presently, they make up 7 percent of the student population despite making up 18 percent of the city population. 

In comparison, white students make up 84% of the student body but just 77% of the city population. Hispanic students represent 3 percent of the student body and 4 percent of the city’s population. Asian-American students represent 4 percent of the student body but 3 percent of the city population. 

The divides are even more apparent with the faculty diversity. Ninety percent of faculty are white, just 3 percent are Black, 4 percent are Latinx, 2 percent are Asian-American and 1 percent are Middle Eastern. 

Kovarik also hopes the SLUH community will make use of the Voices of SLUH series in the future. 

“I would also like to challenge my colleagues and challenge myself as well to use things like our Voices of SLUH and other initiatives we have done here in our classrooms, to not just leave them on YouTube or on the internet but to make them living text that we can continue to learn from,” said Kovarik.

The Voices of SLUH series gave Kovarik hope.

“I just was astounded by the range of perspectives, by the wisdom of our students and our parents and our faculty, and the resourcefulness of our community to be able to put something together and really respond in a way that honored the full complexity and the depth of the challenges that we as a school and we as a nation face in terms of racism and racial division,” said Kovarik.

Toussaint hopes to see the movement extend past these turbulent times. 

“As teachers and students we should be open to growth,” said Toussaint. “This shouldn’t just pop up because someone is murdered or is an election year. This should be something we are always talking about.”

Senior Albert Harrold believes that the school still has a lot of work to do, especially in regards to educating the student body and engaging the students in these sometimes difficult topics. 

“In the future I hope to see a SLUH that engages better with their student body,” said Harrold.  “SLUH needs to go against the culture of settling and actually try to educate the student body on many of the issues. A lot of the racist things that come up at SLUH have to do with people just being ignorant and I think that can be easily stopped if we just educate the student body.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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