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St. Louis Catholic Schools Try To Confront Their Associations With Slavery


In St. Louis, two Catholic high schools are reckoning with an uneasy history linked to slavery. The high schools were named after prominent bishops who owned enslaved people. As the schools grapple with an appropriate response, students and parents are now weighing in. St. Louis Public Radio's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson reports.

MARISSANNE LEWIS-THOMPSON, BYLINE: Rosati-Kain High School and Bishop DuBourg are prominent Catholic high schools here in St. Louis. Rosati-Kain was the first high school in St. Louis to integrate. Bishop DuBourg has notable graduates like Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. But what's significantly less known is that the bishops they're named after owned enslaved people. Madison Miles is a senior at Bishop DuBourg. She was surprised by the revelation.

MADISON MILES: When we have been repping the school's name and motto since we've been there, and it's someone who wasn't a good person?

LEWIS-THOMPSON: In 1822, Bishop DuBourg bought an enslaved couple and their children. A few years later, he transferred their ownership to Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis. Ayanna Baldwin, Madison Miles' mom, says St. Louis has deep ties to slavery, but she's still disappointed.

AYANNA BALDWIN: You don't think to research - let me make sure that before I let my daughter go to this school and pay $900 a month that the person who's the namesake is not some slave owner.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: Bishop DuBourg and Rosati-Kain are two of the latest Catholic institutions grappling with their history of slavery. Across the country, colleges and universities have been leading these efforts to put out the truth. There's a growing consortium of about 80 of them that study their legacies of slavery. That includes Georgetown University, which acknowledged that nearly 300 enslaved people were sold in 1838 to save the then-broke university from going under. The university went on to rename buildings after enslaved people. Loras College in Iowa removed a statue of its founder when it learned he owned enslaved people as well.

But even with the universities leading the charge, the Catholic church does not appear to have a clear blueprint to address its history with slavery. Kelly Schmidt is the research coordinator for the Jesuits' Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project.

KELLY SCHMIDT: We're really on the cusp of a big turning point as the Catholic church in the United States comes to address its history of exploiting African Americans and Indigenous people and other marginalized groups.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: Schmidt says as more universities established working groups to explore their institutions' ties to slavery, many are sharing best practices - things like connecting with the descendants of enslaved people. It's unclear what Rosati-Kain Cain or Bishop DuBourg High School will do next. Neither school has informed students about this history nor would comment for this story. Bishop DuBourg senior Madison Miles wants her school's name changed and a bigger investment in its Black students. But Ayanna Baldwin thinks a name change doesn't go far enough.

BALDWIN: I want you to do action. So you speak action to me by having a scholarship fund for specific individuals so that our young Black men and young Black women can get a good Catholic education.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: Tesh Turner is a student at Rosati-Kain. She wants her school to educate students and teachers about this uneasy history.

TESH TURNER: We can't change the past, so moving forward, it's important that we teach people about it, educate them, so that it won't come as a shock to others.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: While a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis declined an interview, she released a statement acknowledging that the schools are aware of the history. She says the archdiocese wants to learn more and connect with descendants of enslaved people before deciding its next move.

For NPR News, I'm Marissanne Lewis-Thompson in St. Louis.


Marissanne Lewis-Thompson