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Sharing the whole story: Teachers attend workshops on slaveholding and the Church, learn how to better address Jesuit history in the classroom

For several years now, Jesuits in St. Louis have been working to tell a story that was buried in the past. This story is not a pretty one, and reveals a dark part of St. Louis U. High’s history, but it needs to be told. This is the story of the reconciliation and history of the school’s slaveholding past.

To dive into the history of Jesuit slaveholding, a collection of teachers attended a workshop series last semester called “Sharing the Whole Story.” The workshops were sponsored by Saint Louis University as well as the Jesuit Central and Southern Province. It was attended by English teacher Jennifer Carroll, theology teacher Brian Gilmore, Chinese teacher Yude Huang, Director of Equity and Inclusion Frank Kovarik, theology teacher Andrew Schaeperkoetter, counselor Nina See, and Spanish teacher Kate Toussaint.

The goal of the workshops was to provide teachers with the resources and information to better address the history of American slavery in their classsrooms. It focused specifically on how the Catholic church viewed slavery and how these views, while morally conflicting with the church’s own teachings, must be reckoned with today.

According to the Sharing the Whole Story website, “with attention to the understudied interrelation of slavery and American religion and especially Catholicism, the workshops of this conference will provide teachers with the tools needed to better tackle the challenges of teaching slavery.”

Much of the content in the workshops detailed the slaveholding past of the Jesuits in St. Louis, and borrowed from the Jesuit Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation (SHMR) Project, a project aiming to gain knowledge on the history of Jesuit slavery with an emphasis on the lived experience of enslaved people. 

“It’s a documentation project,” said Assistant Principal for Mission Jim Linhares. “It's a history project. It is a way of saying we're now going to incorporate that story into who we are. So going forward, we're not in denial about that.”

The findings of the SHMR Project were part of what factored into the video presented during the Black History Month Assembly this year at SLUH. One of the people mentioned was Peter Hawkins, a slave at the St. Stanislaus Jesuit Seminary. The story of Hawkins is a prime example of how the Jesuits not only conformed with the inhumane institution of slavery, but kept their slaves even after the Civil War and made them buy their own freedom.

Peter Hawkins.

“One of the most striking things I learned was that some of the enslaved people were given their freedom,” said Toussaint. “That's how it was expressed, ‘given their freedom.’ And then through the workshop, I learned that, no, they had to buy their freedom. It was just a staggering amount of money. That the Jesuits like made them do that, it’s just disturbing. And so I think it's really important that we face that as a community and as a city as a country before we can move forward.”

The workshops emphasized that learning more details about the history of slavery is essential to the continued struggle for equal rights. Taking full responsibility for the past must occur before progress can be made. As philosopher George Santayana famously said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“We've known for a long time that people were enslaved by the Jesuits, but we haven't really documented that and we haven't cared enough to look into who those people were, and more importantly, to include that in the story of who we are,” said Linhares. “Eventually, the Jesuits came to recognize that that act of intentionally telling that story—looking at it and researching in a deep way—not only was it a way to say to those who come down to descendants of those folks, ‘we're sorry.’ But it was also a way of owning that past and saying that we're accountable for it.”

The SHMR Project is contacting the descendants of African Americans like Hawkins who were enslaved by the Jesuits and inviting them into conversations around the history of slavery in the Church. Teachers at SLUH who attended the workshops hope to extend this mission to the SLUH community and increase awareness among students about Jesuit slaveholding.

“I've worked for the Jesuits for like 15 years now,” said Toussaint. “I have great respect for them and admiration and professionally I continue to learn so much, so in some ways it was hard to see the truth. Disappointing, disturbing, sickening; it was all of those adjectives. And then it felt really important to know the truth.”

Jesuit slaveholding is not only part of Church history, it is part of SLUH history. In teaching the history of the school, it is important to keep in mind not only the many accomplishments of the Jesuits, but also the places where they fell short in doing God’s work.

“I think that at SLUH, we justifiably take a lot of pride in our school's history, and its long tradition, and all the impressive things that our schools have done,” said Kovarik. “But I think if we're going to do that, we also have to reckon with the parts of our school's history that aren't so impressive and noble, because then we have a more accurate understanding of who we are. If we can better understand where we've been, that'll help us have a clearer sense of how to get where we want to go.”







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