Fenwick Fellows give presentation about Xavier’s slaveholding founder

Photo courtesy of Pintrest

A research project that began last winter culminated in a presentation that brought students, faculty and university administration together on Tuesday, Oct. 3, in Kennedy Auditorium. It came as a follow-up to a lecture given last February by Dr. C. Walker Gollar of the theology department titled “Bishop Edward Fenwick, Founder of Xavier University and Slaveholder.”

In this presentation, Gollar revealed that Xavier founder Edward Fenwick had owned slaves during his lifetime. Gollar once again ascended the stage in Kennedy Auditorium last week to report on his research team’s findings about Fenwick and Xavier’s origins.

Gollar was joined by Archival Librarian Anne Rykbost and the “Fenwick Fellows”: Cormac Cashner, Sean James, Veronica Lawrence, Kara Petit and Miles Tiemeyer. These are students who worked alongside Gollar during the summer, and, as a team, presented their research on a topic that has been the source of intrigue throughout campus during the last few months, as Fenwick Place is named for Edward Fenwick.

Gollar began with a brief history of Fenwick’s life. Born and raised in Maryland in a slaveholding family, Fenwick traveled to Europe, where he became a Dominican priest. Following his return to the U.S., Fenwick inherited his father’s slaves and sold them to help finance a Dominican ministry in Kentucky.

He was made Bishop of Cincinnati in 1822 and helped found the Athenaeum of Ohio in 1831, the last year of his life. This institution eventually came under the care of Father John Elet and the Jesuits. It was later renamed to St. Xavier College and then Xavier University.

While Fenwick did not own slaves during the founding of the Athenaeum, the team’s research into early students revealed how the school was funded in its early years.

About 35 percent of the early student body was composed of boarding students, many of whom were recruited from wealthy families in Louisiana.

Most of these families owned slaves, so the tuition and boarding fees paid by these students came from the institution of slavery. This tuition and fee money made up about 75 percent of the university’s income in its first few years. While Elet publicly expressed anti-slavery views, much of the funding for the university under his care came by way of southern slavery.

Following Gollar’s introduction, the Fenwick Fellows took the stage. Each reported on a student they found in the early student registries, while also describing the painstaking process of deep archival research that helped them tell these students’ stories at Xavier and beyond.

Most were from Louisiana and came from wealthy slaveholding families, adding further narrative context to Gollar’s findings.

“We each had 25 students and we just went to work trying to find all we could about (them),” Tiemeyer, a PPP and history double major explained. “We used census documents from 1840, 1850 and 1860. We had all the information from the (student) registry and course catalogues, which were produced at the end of the year. There were some duds who just didn’t show up in the records. They had their names on the registry, and that’s all I had to go on.”

Afterward, Ryckbost took the stage. She introduced an exhibit that will be housed on the third floor of McDonald Library that features pieces relevant to Xavier’s founding and early history.

She also discussed a digital version of the early student registry and a website that will soon be up and running to document the team’s findings. The website will feature a space where students are encouraged to comment on the work and voice their opinions about the research.

The team’s presentation comes at a critical time on campus, as efforts to rename Fenwick Place are underway. A commission led by Associate Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Kyra Shahid and history professor Dr. Kathleen Smythe is expected to make recommendations on the name change by the end of the semester. Fenwick Place was originally named by student vote back in 2011.

“Had we known more then,” Father Michael Graham, president, stated at the presentation, “I think the vote would have gone much differently…I applaud Walker and the Fellows because they are telling us a story that we did not know before. We need to know and understand moving forward as opposed to it being an invisible narrative.”

“These aren’t new conversations,” Tiemeyer said. “These are conversations that Dion Birney (an early Xavier student and outspoken abolitionist) was having in the 1800s. These are conversations that we’re going to have to keep having to have.”

By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~