In “Before the Mayflower,” a classic black history text by Lerone Bennett, he writes: “Few ships before or since have unloaded such a momentous cargo.” The ship in question was an English pirate ship. That ship, in the summer of 1619, had stolen its “cargo” from a Portuguese vessel. The Portuguese vessel, in turn, had acquired its “cargo” of 350 Africans who had been stolen for a trade which aimed to sell them into slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
Now, 400 years later, we are still grappling with what this important point – what this landing – ultimately wrought.
Out of this event grew a global economic system that predated the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening and the Revolutionary War. It also outlasted the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War. As slavery grew in the United States, it affected every sector of American life and no sector of the economy was left untouched by slave labor. That includes many of our nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities.
Saint Louis University was one of those colleges. Three years ago, with the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province, we formed the “Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project.”
We embarked upon this project because Saint Louis University’s history with slavery extends back to 1823 when the Jesuits brought their mission to Missouri. They came with six enslaved people from White Marsh, Maryland. In 2016, we knew little about those six people beyond their first names: Thomas, Mary (Polly or Molly), Moses, Nancy, Isaac, and Succy.
From there we enlisted faculty, archivists, graduate students, and others to help us uncover as much as we could about their conditions, families, lives, and descendants. Today we know much more about Thomas and Mary Brown, Moses and Nancy Queen, and Isaac and Susan Queen-Hawkins and their descendants. As this work continues, we keep learning more about their lives and what that meant for them and to the university before the end of slavery.
From the outset, everyone who worked on this project has been committed to uncovering and honoring the stories of such people as Matilda Tyler, Henrietta Mills-Chauvin, and Peter Queen, whose labor was essential to the building and sustenance of both Saint Louis University and the Jesuit mission in Missouri, Kentucky and Louisiana. They were just the first in a long line of African Americans who made essential, unsung contributions to the life and health of Saint Louis University.
As the university has now entered its third century in St. Louis, we commit to doing the work necessary to tell those stories. We invite you to help us in uncovering this history, identifying descendants, and together charting a path forward that brings healing and reconciliation to our communities. If you want to know more, please visit http://shmr.jesuits.org.
Five years ago, when Michael Brown was killed, patience expired as pain and frustration spilled out here and across the nation. The Ferguson Commission report documented what those who live it well know: we still have considerable work to do in combating the inequities that linger from the system of oppression that was institutionalized through slavery.
As a university, we will continue to partner with others in the region and beyond in addressing these and related issues. We consider the work on the “Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project” as an important contribution to this effort.
For more information or to help identify a descendant, please visit http://shmr.jesuits.org.
Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., is president of Saint Louis University.