READ continues journey of racial reconciliation

Photo courtesy of Aleshia Zoogah | Dr. Janice Walker of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion gave opening remarks at the Day of Reflection, Education, Awareness and Discernment that focused on racial reconciliation at Xavier on Sept. 17.

Editor Note: This article was expanded on Oct. 10, 2018 at 11:27 a.m.

Dr. Walker Gollar and a collection of students called the Fenwick Scholars discovered through their research last year that Bishop Edward Fenwick, founder of Xavier University and the namesake of Fenwick Place, was a slaveholder.  

Father Michael Graham, president, created a committee to plan the best way for the institution to move forward from its history with slavery. Last year, the Working Group on Xavier’s Connection with Slavery held a forum for re-naming the building and was charged to take action by spring semester of the 2017-2018 school year. As of today, the building is still named Fenwick Place. 

The Working Group rolled out what Dr. Janice Walker of Xavier’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI) referred to as an extensive “journey whose end place is yet to be determined.” The Working Group is a collection of professors, administrators and two students who graduated last year. Graham and the OIDI entrusted the Working Group with reporting how Xavier can both recognize and reconcile the the university’s connection to slavery.  

The precipitous event may have been the discovery of Fenwick’s slaveholding status, but the pursuance of the issue is not simply about Fenwick Place.  

“If all this is about is a name on a residence hall, then we’re not taking seriously the opportunity and responsibility to think to ourselves,” Graham said. “What is the university’s responsibility today in light of the history of its deep connection with slavery?” 

The Working Group’s report, submitted to Graham last January, included suggestions of opportunities for engagement from the larger community and an expansion of research concerning the history of Xavier’s relationship with slavery.  

Additionally, the Working Group suggested that Xavier publicly and broadly share findings of research and that the institution engage in permanent, visible administrative and curricular activities that create a different future for the campus without ignoring its past.  

The Working Group suggested specific events and programs as well, including the Day of Reflection, Education, Awareness and Discernment (READ). 

The OIDI planned and hosted READ on Sept. 17. There were 192 attendees, including undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni and local community members.  

The event began with remarks from Walker, Graham and Dr. Kyra Shahid, followed by keynote remarks from Dr. Leslie Harris. Harris is a specialist in pre-Civil War African-American History and a professor of History and African-American Studies at Northwestern University. Harris is the co-founder and director of the Transforming Community Project at Emory University, which uses history and dialogue to address difficulties surrounding race and diversity within higher education.  

Harris presented an hour -long lecture that focused on the history of slavery and its repercussions within higher education. The speech was followed by an hour of discussion groups comprised of mixed demographics of race, gender and title.  

Harris believes in the potential for healing at Xavier. “Xavier has a real opportunity for work around racial reconciliation. The Jesuit mission and the way that you’re living into the work…I just feel like you’re really ready to move forward.”  

Shahid is excited for the university to move forward. “We have inherited both the sins, and the blessings, of those who have come before us,” Shahid said. Shahid encourages anyone involved in the Xavier community to “use this moment as an opportunity to lean in, to relate in, and to generate a piece of healing for yourself because I think everybody needs it, no matter what history you feel like you mostly inherit.” 

Harris and the members of the Working Group were enthused by the number of students and community members who attended the event.  

“The number of people who came out today, the people I met with in small groups, it just feels like a community that’s really poised to do something important, so I’m looking forward to see what happens,” Harris said. 

Junior Miles Tiemeyer, who worked with Gollar on the research and attended the READ event, felt that “we’ve moved too far from the goal. All of this started because of bias incidents and the research into Bishop Fenwick…What about all the students and employees of color who have to work and live in a building named after a slave owner?” 

Chartwells employee Jermaine Manago does not think the building should be renamed. Manago has worked in the Hoff Dining Commons inside of Fenwick for more 15 years.  

“The only thing that would change would be the name of the building that he was honored by,” Manago said. “If you dig far enough, you will find basic parts of people that you don’t like regardless of who it is, so the name really doesn’t matter.”  

The READ event is not the end of the university’s journey toward reconciliation. The Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) regularly holds discussions on current topics relating to race relations in its series Racial Roundtables. The first Racial Roundtable of the year will be held today at noon in the CDI. 

Included in the Working Group’s report were recommendations for a study abroad program in Senegal called Diasporic Soul. The program aims to help students engage and heal from their connection to slavery and develop leadership skills for social change. The first cohort to go to Senegal is facilitating an event, Django Praxis, that hopes to help Black students and alumni reflect on what racial healing looks like. Django Praxis will take place in Arrupe Overlook on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. 

By: Brittany Wells | Staff Writer