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Culture & History

Two St. Louis Catholic High Schools Grapple With Namesakes’ Ties To Slavery

Dr. Kanika Tuner poses for a portrait with her daughter, Tesh Turner outside Rosati-Kain High School July 21, 2021 in St. Louis.
Michael B. Thomas
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Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Sophomore Tesh Turner poses for a portrait with her mother, Dr. Kanika Tuner, outside Rosati-Kain High School.

Rosati-Kain and Bishop DuBourg high schools are built on legacy. Rosati-Kain was the first high school in St. Louis to integrate. Bishop DuBourg has turned out such notable graduates such as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

However, a lesser-known part of their legacy has lurked in the shadows; both schools are named after bishops who owned enslaved people.

“We have been repping the school's name and motto since we’ve been there,” said Madison Miles, a senior at Bishop DuBourg. “And it’s someone who wasn’t a good person.”

Miles, like some other Black students and alumni at both DuBourg and Rosati-Kain, said she knew nothing of the history behind the school’s name. The revelations stem from an effort the Archdiocese of St. Louis is undergoing to reckon with its connection to the institution of slavery.

The local effort, known as Forgive Us Our Trespasses, has uncovered the names of roughly 85 people enslaved by the archdiocese's bishops and clergy. That list is expected to grow. The group's research has also revealed the names of the bishops and clergy who owned enslaved people — including Bishop William DuBourg.

Ayanna Baldwin, Miles’ mother, said even though she is keenly aware of St. Louis’ deep ties to slavery, she was still disappointed.

“You don’t think to research,” Baldwin said, “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.”

The exterior of Bishop DuBourg High School as seen on July 21, 2021 in St. Louis.
Michael B. Thomas
Bishop DuBourg High School is named after Bishop William DuBourg. DuBourg was the bishop of Louisiana and the Two Floridas. His episcopal seat was in St. Louis. In 1822, DuBourg purchased an enslaved couple and their children.

A few years before the Diocese of St. Louis was created, DuBourg, the bishop of Louisiana and the Two Floridas, had his episcopal seat in St. Louis. In 1822, DuBourg purchased an enslaved couple and their children, and a few years later, he transferred their ownership to Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis.

Tesh Turner, a sophomore at Rosati-Kain, said she learned that history through a friend last month. She didn’t know what to think about it at first, but Turner said the revelation wasn’t shocking, because owning enslaved people at that time was common.

“No one is really surprised by our school being named after a person who owned slaves,” Turner said. “It’s more of a, ‘Oh, yeah I figure that.' Or, 'Yeah, you know, that makes sense.'”

Tesh’s mother, Kanika Turner, said this history should serve as a teachable moment and an opportunity for the school to start meaningful conversations.

“Creating that space for students to express how they feel about this,” Kanika Turner said, “and inquire and learn more about, what does it mean that I’m a student at Rosati-Kain now? Who is the bishop? I think those are important conversations and educational topics that the schools should have. And not just right now. Like, that should be embedded in the curriculum.”

St. Louis Public Radio reached out to administrators with both DuBourg and Rosati-Kain high schools, who referred the station back to the archdiocese. Rosati-Kain President Elizabeth Ann Goodwin did send an email to students’ families and alumni on July 21, citing recent stories about the school’s namesake and noting that it is “required curriculum,” that the history of Bishop Rosati, his involvement in slavery and the archdiocese are taught. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said the curriculum has been taught since 2017 in a history class required for sophomores.

“It is important to note that this devastating reality of our school’s namesake does not reflect the Rosati-Kain High School of today,” Goodwin said in the emailed letter. “In fact, Rosati-Kain's commitment to embrace and serve its diverse population of students, from all backgrounds, is exactly what makes Rosati-Kain distinctive.”

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said in an email that it’s too soon to know next steps, as it's early in the discovery process of the Forgive Us Our Trespasses project. She said the archdiocese is seeking to learn more about the enslaved people held by church leaders and clergy, with the goal of reaching out to their descendants.

The exterior of Rosati-Kain High School as seen on July 21, 2021 in St. Louis.
Michael B. Thomas
Rosati-Kain High School is partially named after Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis. Rosati owned enslaved people, including a family transferred to him by Bishop William DuBourg.

No clear blueprint

DuBourg and Rosati-Kain are the latest institutions grappling with historical links to slavery. In recent years, many colleges and universities have worked to uncover the connections. St. Louis University has joined a growing consortium of roughly 80 universities and colleges doing this research through an initiative known as Universities Studying Slavery. Even though universities are leading the charge, the Catholic Church doesn’t yet have a clear blueprint to address the history.

“We’re really on the cusp of a big turning point as the Catholic Church in the United States comes to address its histories of exploiting African Americans and indigenous people and other marginalized groups,” said Kelly Schmidt, research coordinator for the Jesuits’ Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project at St. Louis University.

Schmidt and her team pieced together St. Louis University and the Jesuits' involvement in slaveholding in the region. In their research, they found overlaps to just how interconnected this history is. She said Bishop DuBourg’s legacy to slavery in the region is significant. In 1823, a year after he purchased an enslaved family, he requested that Maryland Jesuits start a mission in Missouri and bring enslaved people with them.

As more universities establish working groups exploring their institutions’ links to slavery, Schmidt said many are developing and sharing best practices, including connecting with descendants of enslaved people and gathering community input.

“We have to work in partnership knowing that this history is so interconnected,” Schmidt said. “And especially work in partnership with descendant communities, but that involves first really understanding the scope of the history and what our institutions did, and how we benefited by it then and how we continue to benefit by it now.”

An uncertain future

As both schools and the archdiocese wait to learn more, some students, parents and alumni say they want action.

Madison Miles believes Bishop DuBourg High School needs a name change, but her mother said that doesn’t go far enough. Ayanna Baldwin and her daughter agree the school needs more Black teachers and should invest in its Black students.

“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,” Baldwin said.

She sent an email and called the school to inquire about the recent news. Baldwin said the school did not respond to her email, but during a follow-up phone call, school administrators told her they are working on a response to the DuBourg community. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said Bishop DuBourg High School’s leadership is communicating with individual families and will “continue to communicate with their community in the ways they see fit.”

Rosati-Kain alumna Leslie Gill, who graduated in 1995, said she never learned that her alma mater’s namesake owned enslaved people. She thinks a name change should be considered.

“How do we look at this as an opportunity to really elevate the community of girls and young women and maybe name the school after a woman?” asked Gill. “I think that could be a great transition and a great option to really move away from this troubled past.”

Another alumna, Robyn Martin Hill, said the girls who walk through the school are owed the truth and have the skills to handle it. Hill, a 1997 graduate, said transparency is key.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” she said. “I believe that is true here. If we really want to remove some of these issues and ills from our society, we have to identify them. We have to say what they are. And we have to call them out for all the evil that was within them.”

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

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