Navigating Reparations: A Closer Look at Saint Louis University's Response to Claims from Descendants of Enslaved Laborers




Written By Paul Garwood

The demand for compensation by descendants of enslaved Black people who contributed to the construction of Saint Louis University is a significant call for accountability and justice. It reflects a deep-rooted history of exploitation and oppression that must be addressed. The acknowledgment of the reliance on enslaved laborers in building the institution sheds light on a painful past that cannot be ignored.

The 2016 Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project established commitments that the university must honor. SLU needs to engage in meaningful dialogue with the descendants and provide reparations as a form of acknowledgment and redress for the historical injustices endured by their ancestors.

In discussions concerning reparations, the descendants must take the lead. Their voices and perspectives are central to determining how reparations should be made and what forms they should take. Collaborative efforts between the descendants and SLU can pave the way for a more equitable and just resolution.

Reparations go beyond financial compensation; they encompass acknowledgment, apology, and concrete actions to address the legacy of slavery and its impact on generations of individuals. SLU has a moral obligation to confront its past and work toward reconciliation with the descendants of enslaved laborers who contributed to its establishment.

By prioritizing the involvement of descendants and working towards a mutually agreed-upon solution, SLU can demonstrate a commitment to truth, justice, and reconciliation. Institutions like SLU need to take responsibility for their historical role in perpetuating systemic injustices and actively engage in processes of repair and healing.

Saint Louis University's "The Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project" demonstrates a commitment to truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing in the context of acknowledging historical injustices related to slavery. The project aims to work alongside descendants of enslaved individuals, seeking to address the lasting impact of slavery manifested as racial inequities today. Henrietta Mills Chauvin, among many others, was an enslaved Black individual brought to Saint Louis to contribute to the construction of the university.

It is highlighted that the labor and time invested by individuals like Henrietta Mills Chauvin in building institutions such as the university cannot be equated to the immense pain and suffering, they endured during that period. Areva Martin, representing the descendants, emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing the significant hardships faced by enslaved individuals, underscoring the need for acknowledgment, reparations, and efforts to rectify the historical injustices that continue to affect communities today.

The project's focus on truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing aligns with broader efforts to confront the legacy of slavery, promote awareness, and actively work toward addressing systemic racial disparities. By engaging with descendants and acknowledging the historical harms inflicted upon enslaved individuals, Saint Louis University's initiative represents a step towards fostering understanding, healing intergenerational wounds, and promoting justice and equity in the present day.

Saint Louis University's historical ties to slavery and the exploitation of enslaved people are deeply troubling and call for meaningful reparation efforts. In 2019, university officials and descendants began collaborating on reparations initiatives, acknowledging the history of stolen labor and seeking to address the injustices of the past. However, the progress was halted due to the pandemic.

Upon resuming discussions in 2021, descendants expressed concerns about being excluded from the process, highlighting the need for transparent and inclusive dialogue. The university aims to further engage with descendant families to honor the memory of the exploited workers and to address the impact of stolen labor on generations of individuals and communities.

The historical context reveals that between 1823 and 1865, Jesuits in Missouri borrowed, rented, or owned over 150 enslaved people. Enslaved families were brought from Maryland to Florissant in 1823 to support the construction of the St. Stanislaus seminary and plantation. Subsequently, more enslaved individuals were brought to Saint Louis College (later Saint Louis University) in 1829, where they were subjected to forced labor.

Moving forward, Saint Louis University must engage in transparent dialogue with descendant families, acknowledge the value of the stolen labor, and work towards reparations that address the historical injustices. Collaborative efforts, rooted in truth, accountability, and restitution, are essential in providing healing and reconciliation for the impacted individuals and communities.