By Morgan Miles and Andrew Guthrie, Staff Writer and Guest Writer
In 2016, Dr. C. Walker Gollar presented research that proved that Xavier’s newest residence hall, Bishop Edward Fenwick Hall, was named after a man who had owned and sold slaves. Today, in 2023, we find ourselves back in the same place.
Dr. Gollar is a professor of Church History at Xavier who specializes in American Catholicism and Black Theology. He brought to my attention that Elet Hall, Xavier’s oldest residence hall on campus, now used as the Psychology Department building, is named after slave owner Father John A. Elet. Father Elet was the first president of the institution that would become Xavier University after it was taken by the Society of Jesus from Bishop Fenwick.
It is known for certain that Father Elet owned slaves while he was president of St. Louis University, a fellow Jesuit University. Dr. Gollar’s research shows that there is documentation that Father Elet treated his slaves not as people but as property. Records show that he considered selling them to pay off bills.
I wonder if Xavier thought that just because Elet Hall is across Victory Parkway that no one would ever find out, that no one would care or that it wasn’t worth their time to change. Frankly, the lack of action has me questioning Xavier’s commitment to racial justice and anti-racism. Is it surface-level, to merely please the students and faculty of color? Is it like how the outside of Justice Hall is renamed but signs on the inside of the building still read “Fenwick Hall”? If Xavier truly cared about racial justice and advocating for social progress on campus, the renaming of Fenwick would have triggered an investigation into the name of every building on campus. And maybe they would have actually changed the signs that read “Fenwick Hall.” Just a thought.
The discovery of the actions of Elet’s Hall namesake is gross but in no way surprising because the Jesuits were not non-actors in history. They owned slaves and often participated in cultural suppression and have a history that is tied to colonialism. My point is, if possible, maybe we can skip the surprised gasps, copy-paste email responses and pearl-clutching. If this news about Elet Hall has truly surprised you, maybe it is time for you to wake up.
Especially for many people of color on campus, this isn’t the first nor last nor least expected failure of Xavier to truly hold itself accountable – to actually adhere to the Jesuit values it praises. It isn’t enough to provide scholarships or have organizations created for people of color. These aren’t distractions from the fact that buildings like Elet still have the name of a slave owner when Xavier seemed to care so much a year ago about Justice Hall’s renaming. Justice Hall not only sounds like a juvenile delinquent center but serves as what I see as a pat on the back for tackling racial injustice, now that I know of Elet’s history and blatant overlook.
The naming of a building after a person exalts them to prominence and importance. Buildings on campus should be named after people who have a history or legacy that aligns with the Jesuit values Xavier promotes with such passion. By owning slaves, Father Elet demonstrates racist views which did not view Black people to be fully human; these are dehumanizing beliefs which have no basis in Ignatian Principles. Father Elet’s lifestyle and actions do not align with the values Xavier encourages us to take seriously and consider every day. He should not remain the namesake for Elet Hall.
And in being the namesake of Elet Hall, Xavier has revealed an inattention to the importance of committing to action, equality and advocacy, and genuinely supporting the whole student body. It’s embarrassing, already, how poorly responses to hate crimes and safety concerns on campus are handled. Elet is another addition to the list of shortcomings Xavier will, unfortunately, probably ignore until we sign a hundred more petitions, hold another hundred protests and swamp the President with a hundred more emails.
More information about Father Elet is likely to come to light soon as Dr. Gollar continues his research. In light of what is already known, I hope that Xavier University leadership will take swift action to condemn the name of Elet Hall and will commit to choosing a new one. If not because they genuinely want to support people of color on campus, then at the very least for improving its image.