By Laura Weis and Kelly Schmidt
July 22, 2019- The last 12 months have been a time of growth for the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation (SHMR) Project. In collaboration with Saint Louis University, Fr. Provincial Ronald A. Mercier established the SHMR Project in 2016 to research the lived experiences of the men, women and children enslaved by Jesuits in the 19th century, in order to know, and to share, a more complete history of Jesuit involvement in the institution of slavery. The project now receives the support of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
The commitment and leadership of David Miros, director of the Jesuit Archives and Research Center, along with Jonathan Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement at Saint Louis University, have sustained the project’s vision. Led by Research Coordinator Kelly Schmidt, as many as six researchers and translators have combed through archives, translated foreign language documents and begun the painstaking task of constructing family trees.
Laura Weis joined the team as project coordinator in January 2019. This spring, the SHMR Project staff moved into a new office.
Schmidt and her team have now identified nearly 200 enslaved individuals, whose unfree labor helped establish and sustain Jesuit missions and colleges in places such as Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana and Alabama. Researcher Fr. Jeffrey Harrison, SJ, continues to pursue new threads of this history as he traces the lives of the enslaved and their descendants. Research Assistant Nick Lewis, a doctoral student in history at Saint Louis University, helped the team to learn more about prominent Jesuits Peter De Smet and Peter Verhaegen, their attitudes toward slavery, and the decisions they made about enslaved people’s lives in early 19th century Missouri and beyond.
The discovery of new details prompts renewed reflection upon the realities of slavery. Prohibited in principle but pervasive in practice, family separation and physical violence were not uncommon. Freedom seekers who escaped their bondage faced the threat of capture, imprisonment or being sold.
Schmidt, Harrison and Lewis recently pieced together previously unknown parts of one enslaved man’s story: Peter, a man purchased by the Jesuits in Missouri in 1832, was torn from his wife and children in 1849 when he was sold to Jesuits in Bardstown, Ky. A few weeks later, Peter attempted to escape, but he was apprehended and imprisoned in Lexington, Ky., then sold away. It is unlikely he ever saw his family in Missouri again.
While we continue to learn about the severe conditions the enslaved endured, the historical record also reveals their resilience. As Schmidt has shown, during the period of enslavement, the people enslaved by Jesuits built communities that they and their descendants sustained in the years after they became free, despite entrenched patterns of segregation and racial inequity that took hold in the postbellum era.1
We are learning about this resilience through descendants such as the Mills/Chauvin family. While we know little about Henrietta Mills’ life as a bondswoman at Saint Louis University, we do know that at the turn of the 20th century, she, her husband, Charles Chauvin, and their ten children lived in St. Louis and supported themselves as washers, waiters, porters, barbers and musicians. Their youngest child, Louis Ignatius Chauvin, was a famous musician in his day, and performed alongside ragtime musicians Scott Joplin and Sam Patterson. We also know that members of the family worshipped at St. Elizabeth’s Parish, a Jesuit parish and the first parish for black Catholics in St. Louis.
As we continue to trace family lineages, we have identified a growing number of living descendants, with whom we hope to build relationships. In connecting with descendants, our commitment, first and foremost, is to listen. We seek not only to share with descendants of the enslaved what we know about their families’ histories, but also to learn from them about their stories, past and present.
We have met recently with faith leaders in north St. Louis city and county, areas where we expect descendants may still be living. We will continue these meetings in the coming months, in order to share our findings and to invite people into a conversation about next steps.
As we begin to grapple with the question, “Where do we go from here?”, we affirm our commitment to a transformative process of truth-telling, reconciliation and healing that acknowledges historical harms, seeks to repair relationships and works within our communities to address the legacies of slavery that persist in the form of racial inequities today.
We have been struck again and again by the ways in which the stories we are piecing together compel us, especially those of us who identify as white, to confront the ways in which our contemporary lives are inextricably bound to the legacies of slavery. While the story we seek to tell is one that honors the lives of the enslaved and bears witness to the full extent of Jesuit slaveholding and its consequences, we are also reminded, in our research and in conversations with community members, that this history and its legacies transcend the boundaries of any one group.
This story is also the story of the Catholic Church and the ways in which its leaders and laypeople alike participated in the institution of slavery. It is part of the origin stories of cities from Missouri to Louisiana. It is part of the story of westward expansion, not only of Jesuit missions, but also of U.S. territory. It is, at its core, part of our national story.
Learn more at the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project site.
1 To learn more, see her recently published article: Kelly L. Schmidt. “Enslaved Faith Communities in the Jesuits' Missouri Mission.” U.S. Catholic Historian 37, no. 2 (2019): 49-81.