Photo courtesy of The Chronicles of Higher Education
The working group tasked with recommending name changes for Fenwick Place met with students, staff and faculty on Wednesday, Nov. 1, to discuss how the university should proceed in grappling with the history of Bishop Edward Fenwick. The group led by Dr. Kyra Shahid, associate director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and Dr. Kathleen Smythe of the history department consists of 12 members including faculty, staff and students and was commissioned by Father Michael Graham, president, to offer recommendations about name changes for Fenwick Place.
This followed the discovery that Fenwick, the founder of Xavier University, had owned slaves during his lifetime; these findings were expanded upon by research from Dr. C. Walker Gollar of the theology department. Dr. Amit Sen, a professor in the economics department and a member of the working group, explained that preliminary research began in the summer.
“We’ve had some participation from the Xavier community, and Professor Gollar’s research was very instrumental in how we shaped the conversations,” Sen said.
At the meeting, Dr. Randy Browne of the history department led a discussion on the first segment of the group’s mission, which is to “re-write the narrative of Xavier’s history (and that of the Catholic church) to include its reliance on and foundation in the institution of slavery,” according to a provided handout.
He highlighted several ways in which the university could achieve this goal, such as revisions to Mission and Identity pamphlets, updating Manresa and other orientation activities and creating a visible display in Fenwick Place so members of the community can reflect on the university’s history. The working group would also like the university to make a public statement acknowledging “the real and everlasting impact of slavery,” in an attempt to remember the past with an educated eye to the future.
Two student members of the working group, Rhandi Wallace and Sean James, led a discussion on how to engage students in the conversation about slavery and Xavier moving forward, beyond Manresa and GOA. Proposals included the hiring of a director for Gender and Diversity Studies to spearhead a program called “Social and Cultural Analysis,” the development of an Africana Studies scholarship program to encourage participation in the scholarly discussion surrounding the African diaspora and the creation of a study abroad experience in western African nations, where the legacy of slavery can be studied at its roots.
Each of these proposals aims for institutional restorative justice, avenues by which the university can attempt to make amends for past injustices and play an active role in the future of racial justice.
Finally, Smythe arrived at the topic most of those present had come to debate: renaming Fenwick Place. Currently, suggestions from the working group include Magis Hall and Solidarity Hall as a tribute to the university’s Jesuit heritage. Ideas also include honoring Black leaders such as Augustus Tolton, a former slave and the first African American Roman Catholic priest, and Marian Spencer, the first Black woman to be elected to the Cincinnati City Council. Another suggestion is “Persons from Other Places,” honoring the legacy of those forgotten by the cruelty of the slave trade.
There remains debate as to whether the name “Fenwick Place” should be changed at all. Some argue that changing the name is an act of erasing the past and is an attempt to deliberately forget the painful history that Xavier must grapple with. By keeping the name, the Xavier community is forced to continue the conversation about slavery and the university.
“I’m not sure what direction we would go,” Sen said. “Personally, I think a hyphenated name would be very interesting — to have a ‘Fenwick slash something.’ I do feel removing Fenwick completely erases from the memory. On the one hand, replacing it has its own virtues. Having a hyphenated name allows us to perpetuate the conversation, because it will always be in our memory. ”
Ihsan Walker, a sophomore biology major, disagreed. “I think renaming the building makes a statement, to not only the city of Cincinnati and the state, but to the nation as well, especially in such times as we’re in. It shows that Xavier takes a stand on injustice, even though that wasn’t Bishop Fenwick’s whole story.”
James, a senior history major and “Fenwick Fellow” who worked alongside Gollar this summer, agreed with Walker.
“I was unsure at first,” James said. “It was nice to hear different opinions, but the more I thought about it, I definitely agree that the name should be changed, solely because there are certain sins that are unforgivable, and slavery is an unforgivable sin.”
Sen acknowledged that the working group has yet to reach a consensus. Graham has asked for clear recommendations within the next few weeks, and he hopes to take action on some of these recommendations during the spring semester. The working group hopes to have one final public forum to finalize its recommendations with input from the community.
By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~