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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Investigation on hold

The traveling exhibit from the Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery came to St. Joe’s in Feb. 2016. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY.

Working group on St. Joe’s ties to slavery inactive for two years

It has been two years since an informal task force on St. Joe’s and its connections to Jesuit slaveholding last met, and there have been no updates from the Office of the Provost or the Office of the President.

The initial task force consisted of four faculty members: Paul Aspan Ph.D., professor of theology and then associate provost for academic and faculty support; Randall Miller Ph.D., professor of history; Jenny Spinner, Ph.D., associate professor of English; and Tia Pratt, Ph.D., a former visiting professor of sociology at St. Joe’s, who left the university at the end of the spring 2017 semester after completing a fourth and final contract year as a visiting professor.

“From a moral perspective, I felt strongly that the university needed to investigate the question,” Pratt said. “If the answer was yes, the university had to figure out as a community what to do about it.”

The group approached administrators in fall 2016, just a few months after reports that Georgetown University had benefited financially from the sale of 272 Jesuit-owned slaves in 1838.

Georgetown established a Working Group on Slavery in fall 2015 with the goal of making recommendations on how to address the university’s history with slavery. The group issued a 104-page report in the summer of 2016.

As reported in The Hawk in 2016, in the wake of the Georgetown report, other universities, including Jesuit schools like John Carroll University and Saint Louis University, started to explore their own possible ties to slavery. 

Miller said even if St. Joe’s benefit from slavery was indirect, rather than direct, as was the case at Georgetown University, it should still be investigated.

“The idea of this is discovery and honesty, self-awareness, and then it’s not just to know that history,” Miller said. “It’s to say, okay, knowing this history, whatever it is, not only what does it mean, but what are we going to do with it? We’re a Jesuit Catholic university and all that would play into who we profess to be, and so it would be a logical thing to do for that reason, if no other. It’s the right thing to do on its own account.”

Miller has been attending conferences and meetings at other schools in the two years since the founding of the St. Joe’s task force in order to learn about how to do this kind of institutional research. He sees the University of Virginia as a model school for doing such research on slavery.

In April 2013, UVA Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity Marcus Martin, MD, proposed an exploration of the school’s ties to slavery to the President’s Cabinet. One initiative that formed as a result of this proposal was the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which aims to research and report on UVA’s history of slavery.

“One of the things we know from other schools doing these things is complicity and even benefit is not necessarily because you were a slave owner yourself,” Miller said. “It could simply be that you profited in some way from businesses that had dealings with slave holding.”

Pratt also said she felt strongly that the university needed to investigate the question of whether there were financial ties between the university and the slave sale. If the answer was yes, Pratt said the community needed to decide what to do about that.

“We need to know that one, it’s part of our history and two, it’s important when we look at the lack of diversity within the present campus,” Pratt said. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum. Is this part of a culture that upholds the discrepancy that we see?”

Provost Jeanne Brady, Ph.D., confirmed Miller and Spinner approached her about forming a group to investigate any ties St. Joe’s had to the institution of slavery. Brady, Aspan, Miller, Spinner and Monica Nixon, Ed.D, former assistant provost for Inclusion and Diversity, met in January 2017. 

“I encouraged them to work with Dr. Monica Nixon to determine next steps,” Brady said. “However, planning for the MLK 50th Anniversary Commemoration took priority that year, and then Dr. Monica Nixon left Saint Joseph’s to pursue other opportunities. Since then, responding in appropriate and collaborative ways to the campus climate survey, while also working to hire our next Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, has been our principal concern.”

Miller also said the MLK Anniversary put the potential work of the group on a side rail.

Aspan cautioned that a working group could face challenges moving forward. One of those challenges is resourcing. Another is finding faculty willing to devote time to pursue the project.

“In order to have faculty, students and staff create partnerships on researching our history with the slave trade, we would have to resource the necessary travel and other materials needed to perform the research,” Aspan said. “Secondly, there’s the pragmatic problem that every faculty member has her or his own established research program. Thus in order for this to succeed, the question would have to be raised, how much time could the different scholars at Saint Joseph’s devote to this, or would they be willing to devote to this in order to do the archival research and subsequent writing.”

Still, Aspan said it is important for the university to move forward, and such research should be a priority at St. Joe’s.

“I think the working group should be brought up again,” Aspan said.

Miller also said he hopes the new provost, Cheryl McConnell, Ph.D., will support the group’s initial work.

“It will be interesting to see what the new provost does with this, if anything,” Miller said. “But we can always just go back to Dr. Reed and say this thing has been sitting on the back burner for [the] equivalent of two years. We actually know a lot more about how to do this sort of thing, so this is an opportunity to restart it.”

Alex Mark ’20 contributed to this story.

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