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What We Know About Xavier's Historical Connections to Slavery
- Xavier has no direct connection to slavery from the school’s founder, Bishop Edward Fenwick (1768-1832).
- None of Fenwick’s enslaved people helped to build Xavier (first called the Athenaeum).
- No proceeds from the labor of Fenwick’s enslaved people supported Xavier.
- Fenwick’s experience with slavery changed over time.
- As a young man, Fenwick inherited some enslaved people from his father
- Fenwick’s inherited people probably were from the “charter generation,” not the “plantation generation” of slaves, suggesting that the ancestors of Fenwick’s slaves had been in America for a long time, maybe first brought to Maryland by Fenwick’s great-great-great grandfather in the mid seventeenth century. Fenwick’s enslaved people, including probably all their ancestors, likely did not suffer through the horrible Middle Passage, which for Maryland slaves mostly took place in the early eighteenth century. The ancestors to Fenwick’s slaves moreover could have last lived in Africa hundreds of years before coming to America.
- Fenwick had no contact with his enslaved inheritance for twenty years while he lived in Europe, during which time, Fenwick’s brother loosely oversaw Fenwick’s enslaved people.
- Fenwick probably sold some of his enslaved people in Maryland, and used the proceeds from this sale to purchase other enslaved people in Kentucky, though Fenwick most likely sold and bought not individual slaves, but land that included slaves, a common practice that essentially kept together a generally unstable enslaved community.
- Fenwick’s enslaved workforce grew to at least nineteen people.
- Fenwick’s enslaved people helped to build, and subsequently worked at St. Rose Convent, the first house for Dominican men in the United States, located in Springfield, Kentucky. Part of the church that Fenwick built at St. Rose still stands, but was significantly enlarged in 1852. On the site of the original Dominican residence now stands a more modern house.
- Many of Fenwick’s enslaved men, including George, Dick, Ned, Steph, and Frank worked at the St. Rose mill, built before Fenwick purchased the property and located down the hill from the church on Cartwright’s Creek. Some of Fenwick’s enslaved women, including Giney, Susan, and Celia, tended the St. Rose gardens and prepared meals for both the Dominicans and for fellow slaves.
- Fenwick’s enslaved men and women, along with their descendants, likely lived near the mill, and probably are buried in unmarked graves also near the mill.
- Fenwick actively oversaw his enslaved workforce for about six years, from roughly 1806-1812, sometimes working beside the enslaved men at the mill.
- After 1812, Fenwick had little direct contact with the enslaved people at St. Rose, who continued to work there under the direction of other Dominicans.
- By the time Fenwick opened Xavier in 1831, he had not been an active slaveholder for nineteen years.
- After 1812, Dominicans at St. Rose occasionally consulted with Fenwick about their enslaved workers, and Fenwick once suggested when St. Rose was in financial trouble that the Dominicans sell all their Kentucky property, including the slaves.
- After Fenwick was consecrated the first Bishop of Cincinnati in 1822, he lamented that slavery existed in Kentucky, and praised the state of Ohio for not allowing slavery.
- Fenwick died in 1832, less than a year after he opened Xavier. His influence on Xavier was minor, with Cincinnati priests largely designing the curriculum and controlling the institution even when Fenwick was alive.
- Several presidents of Xavier after Fenwick had significant ties to slavery.
- Fenwick’s successor as Bishop (later Archbishop) of Cincinnati, John Baptist Purcell, probably owned slaves as President of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, but after becoming Bishop of Cincinnati (including when he served for a brief time as president of Xavier) was one of the few American Catholic leaders who opposed slavery (though Purcell for the most part did not make his anti-slavery views known until the outbreak of the Civil War).
- The first Jesuit President of Xavier, John Elet, S.J., owned slaves in his former position as President of St. Louis College, now St. Louis University. At Xavier, Elet recruited heavily from prosperous slaveholding families in Louisiana. As a result, much of the income of Xavier under Elet and subsequent Jesuit presidents came from parents who made their fortunes exploiting enslaved labor.
Professor C. Walker Gollar
August 20, 2020