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Reckoning and Redemption

 

Across Catholic higher education, colleges and universities are confronting the visible legacy of racism on their campuses

By Michael Hahn

 

Inside the front doors of the Mary Help of Christians Basilica on the campus of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina is a large, solid block of granite.  This massive stone, years before the school was founded in 1876, was used as a slave auction block.  Today, it serves as a baptismal font and is engraved with the words: “Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery.  Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.”

The stone was unearthed by college students in 1964, after it had been previously buried in the ground that eventually became the campus of Belmont Abbey College.  “The students wanted to transform the stone into something positive,” explained Rolando Rivas, vice provost and chief communications officer at Belmont Abbey College.

As he tours new students around the campus, Jason Williams, head coach of women’s basketball at the college, makes a point to show them the stone and teach them about its past.  “Seeing this stone, being able to touch it,” Williams said, “is a lot different than learning about slavery from a textbook.”  When asked about the current place and function of the stone on campus, Williams added, “If Christ has taught us anything, it is the power of transformation and redemption.”

The transformation of the slave stone at Belmont Abbey College is but one example of how Catholic colleges and universities are confronting the visible legacy of racism on their campuses.  Following reports in 2016 of Georgetown University’s history of slave labor on Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland, awareness of Catholic higher education’s connection to slavery in the United States increased.  As James Keenan, SJ, wrote in University Ethics: How Colleges can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics, “The American university houses the ghosts of slavery.”

Belmont-Abbey-College

The inscription on the baptismal font reads: “Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery.  Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.”

Georgetown University’s response, which many higher education officials regard as an exemplar, began with the formation of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, a committee charged with recommending concrete steps to reckon with the university’s past.  Ultimately, the multifaceted response at Georgetown included a formal apology by President DeGioia on behalf of the university; the identification of descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold in 1838, through the creation of the Georgetown Memory Project; and a permanent campus memorial in honor of those who were enslaved.

Additionally, Georgetown renamed the two campus buildings that previously honored the Jesuit presidents who were involved in the 1838 sale.  One building is now known as Isaac Hawkins Hall after one of the enslaved men who was sold.  The other building honors Anne Marie Becraft, an African-American nun who established a school for Black girls.

Other Catholic colleges and universities are also reassessing campus art, architecture, buildings, and figures in an effort to promote transparency, accountability, and truth telling.  At the University of Notre Dame, the president, Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, recently announced the decision to cover murals of Christopher Columbus in the Main Building.  Painted between 1882 and 1884, the murals were originally intended to inspire the largely immigrant student population.  Yet, more recently, many have questioned whether the murals accurately represent the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for Indigenous peoples.

“The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled,” Jenkins wrote, “and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame’s distinctive history and Catholic mission.”

 

The decision at Notre Dame reveals a tension present on other Catholic campuses that are home to statues, buildings, and artwork that pay tribute to figures who are facing new scrutiny. 

 

The decision at Notre Dame reveals a tension present on other Catholic campuses that are home to statues, buildings, and artwork that pay tribute to figures who are facing new scrutiny.  A notable example is Junípero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan priest who founded several missions throughout California.  Many Catholics feel that Serra is still worthy of celebration given his contribution to spreading the Catholic faith (during his pastoral visit to the United States in 2015, Pope Francis canonized Serra).  But Serra is also the subject of controversy given his alleged brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples, behavior that is at odds with the goal of evangelization.

The University of San Diego is one school that is grappling with the legacy of Serra.  The dormitory formally known as Serra Hall, according to a press release from the university, will now be called Saints Tekakwitha and Serra Hall.  The new name establishes a middle way by including Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic saint, alongside Serra.

 

‘We Cannot Undo the Past’

The renaming of the building at the University of San Diego followed months of conversations around campus.  Faculty, Church officials, scholars, and students contributed to the discussions about how best to embody the school’s Catholic heritage, as well as its respect for inclusion and diversity.  A recent graduate said, “I am proud of my university.  This is exactly how a university should handle these types of difficult issues.  We cannot undo the past, but we can study it, and we must learn from it if we want to act differently in the future.”

As Catholic colleges and universities work to reverse the effects of systemic racism on their campuses, Craig A. Ford, Jr., assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, encourages university leaders to begin with meaningful consultation around campus.  “Now, here’s the critical part,” Ford explained, “once administrators hear what the needs are, they need to take action that models both power-sharing and accountability.”

When asked how these decisions intersect with the Catholic mission and identity of these institutions, Ford explained that solidarity is one of the most important themes of Catholic Social Teaching.

“By reaching out to campus entities that advocate for the flourishing of Black people and other people of color,” Ford said, “members of the college community draw near to the very people from whom they can attain insight into the shape that effective antiracist action can take.  This is action that demonstrates a commitment to the common good where all people can flourish, and this is exactly what solidarity is.”

 

Michael Hahn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and the current Program Director of Character and Virtue Education at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. His research focus includes the future of American Catholic higher education.