XU grapples with ties to slavery

Gollar says the university still has work to do to reconcile its history

By Trevor Tiemeyer, Staff Writer

Newswire sat down with Dr. Walker Gollar, a professor in the theology department who teaches American Catholic history, to discuss Xavier’s ties to slavery and the renaming of Justice Hall. Gollar has been at Xavier for almost 30 years, and his research focuses on issues related to slavery.

Q: Can you describe the research you conducted? What was its original purpose and what spurred it? 

A: Back in 2016, when Georgetown University announced it was changing the names of some of its buildings because they had some connections to slavery, Father Michael Graham  came to me because he knew the extent of my research. Truth of the matter is I had been very involved in those conversations with Georgetown. So, I told Graham that I knew a lot about that, and he encouraged me to study more deeply Xavier’s connection to slavery. So, for five or six years now, I have focused my research on slavery. It started with (Bishop Edward) Fenwick, but Xavier’s connections to slavery are much, much bigger.

Q: What do you think  Xavier did well when renaming Justice Hall, and what could it have done better?

A: I guess what they did well is Xavier acknowledged that Fenwick was a slaveholder who did not deserve to have his name on the building. I agree with that decision, and I think it was a good thing. But what bothers me more is what Xavier did not do, especially the folks who were on the committees to rename the building… They haven’t taken the time to learn the names of the people who were enslaved and what their stories were. 

Photo courtesy of Xavier University via Facebook 
At the start of the fall semester, Xavier officially changed the name of Fenwick Hall to Justice Hall. Dr. Walker Gollar wonders if this change was enough to educate Xavier on its historical ties to slavery.

As one person on the committee said to me, “Fenwick was a slaveholder. What else do we need to know?” To dismiss the man simply because he was a slaveholder and (to not) take the time to explore the broader story… is an egregious error, an embarrassment really…We took the name off the building, but there is no permanent display of who Fenwick was, or even why we took the name off the building. There is still no recognition of who the enslaved people were. There is also no broader exploration of Xavier’s bigger connections to racism and slavery. 

Q: What needs to be done to rectify the renaming of Justice Hall?

A: They first need to find a way to permanently tell the story. That might mean empowering me or someone else to update the LibGuide, that might mean making a plaque.Secondly, we need to listen more to voices of the oppressed. A colleague of mine here at Xavier, a Black man, said to me, where he grew up in Cincinnati, Justice Hall meant the police department. So, he is not at all thrilled with the fact that we named this building a police department. What this Black colleague of mine would say is that Xavier has gone backwards. 

Also, justice is not a Jesuit value.We have taken his name off the building, made him pay for the fact that he was a slaveholder, so in that way it fits but it is not a Jesuit value. Jesuits believe in social justice; slavery was not something that individual people did as a sinful act, and we should punish those specific people… The thing that really frightens me is that by taking the name off the building, people might get the impression that Xavier has now solved its problem with racism. When, in fact, all it’s done is punished one person… Xavier has not even begun to embrace the questions of social justice regarding race disparity. So, we need to do a lot more than just take the name off the building. We need to listen, we need to do more homework (and) we need to broaden the scope. I fear in some ways renaming the building Justice Hall has been a step back.

Q: What actions ​can Xavier take to prevent these mistakes from happening again?

A: I think that, from what I know of the process, it was done by a few people who really were not engaged in conversation with other people. I never talked with them, even though I have spent seven years of my life looking at this stuff. So, I think in the future we need to have broader discussion where we honor all of the voices, including that colleague of mine who thinks Justice Hall is now the police department, and the scholars who have done the work, and any other students who might feel oppressed by Xavier’s racist environment. 

Q: What else does Xavier need to do to continue being anti-racist and confront its entanglements with slavery? 

A: Xavier needs to honestly face the truth of its history. Xavier needs to recognize — as do all Catholic institutions of higher learning — that slavery was a part of the American Catholic experience from the very beginning. Jesuits were selling slaves from the get-go… not just in 1838, when the Jesuits sold 272 slaves at Georgetown. At one point, Fenwick sold some of his enslaved people down in Kentucky so he could put a roof on his Cincinnati cathedral. These are the types of brutally honest facts that Xavier and Georgetown and the Catholic community in general need to honestly tell.

Q: What is your opinion on the current state of the Fenwick Hall LibGuide?

A: The LibGuide was a platform for sharing some early information concerning Xavier’s historical connection to slavery. I think it has served the campus pretty well… But honestly, I have not touched it in years, and it is incredibly outdated. I have done so much more in recent years than what’s there. I just don’t have the time to really update it, in terms of the scholarship on this same topic. 

Q: What do you believe needs to happen with the LibGuide? 

A: It just needs to be updated with more recent information. The LibGuide, for example, identifies that Fenwick was a slaveholder, and it gives some good resources on that…He was not only a slaveholder, but he also sold slaves. He was a slave trader, sometimes to further his Catholic aspirations; none of that is on the LibGuide. I have discovered much about the individual people that Fenwick enslaved. I know their names, I know what they did, I know how they survived slavery (and) I even identified people alive today who are descendants of people Fenwick enslaved. Xavier has much stronger connections to slavery that go much beyond Fenwick and very little of that is even hinted at on the LibGuide.

Q: Do you have any additional comments or thoughts about the renaming of Justice Hall or Xavier’s ties to slavery?

A: This is hard work that takes a lot of time. I have been working on this particular topic for six years now, and I am just about finished with a book, but it is not even finished yet. I think with Father Graham retiring, there was a sense of urgency that we needed to deal with this problem and not pass it on to the next president. And I get that, but I think they acted too soon… Xavier needs to be a little more patient. But I do think Xavier has the chance to heal some of its racial wounds if it dares to patiently tell its story.