A Black St. Louis baseball star finally receives a headstone as descendants honor his life and legacy
Descendants of Sylvester Chauvin are grateful that their ancestor will finally have a headstone at his grave at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. Chauvin was a star baseball player in the 1880s for the St. Louis Black Stockings, one of the country’s first Black baseball teams. He was also a musician like his well-known younger brother Louis Chauvin, who performed with ragtime legend Scott Joplin. Sylvester Chauvin's story and those of his enslaved parents and relatives were detailed in the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project at St. Louis University.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project in partnership with the Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved will unveil the gravestone at a dedication ceremony at 1 p.m. June 13 at Calvary Cemetery.
Robin Proudie is the founder of DSLUE and a direct descendant of Chauvin and his mother, Henrietta Mills, a woman enslaved by St. Louis University. Proudie spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson about Sylvester Chauvin.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Who was Sylvester Chauvin? Why did he matter in St. Louis?
Robin Proudie: Sylvester Chauvin was born in 1860 to Henrietta Mills and Charles F. Chauvin. Henrietta was enslaved at St. Louis University and Charles F. Chauvin, his father, was enslaved to a local St. Louis woman named Amanda Curtis. But Sylvester, he was a star player in one of the country’s first baseball clubs called the St. Louis Black Stockings. He played in 1883 to 1886. He became the team captain in 1885.
Lewis-Thompson: A couple of years ago you found out you were a direct descendant of Sylvester Chauvin through the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project at St. Louis University. His mother, Henrietta Mills, was enslaved by the university. When you found out about your connection to him and to her, what went through your mind? Had you ever heard about Sylvester?
Proudie: Actually, I was doing research on a genealogical site. So I knew about [Henrietta Mills], because I saw her in the 1880 census. So I knew about her and I knew about Sylvester. But I did not know about their connection to St. Louis University. As you know, most African Americans cannot trace their history before 1870. You know, they call it the 1870 brick wall. Well, we were contacted by the Society of Jesus by way of letter in the mail informing us that we descended from people that they had enslaved at St. Louis University and other Jesuit-run missions, schools and farms in Missouri.
Lewis-Thompson: Sylvester is getting a headstone donated by the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project during a dedication ceremony at Calvary Cemetery on Monday. How did that happen? Why is he being recognized all these years later?
Proudie: The nonprofit founder, Jeremy Krock, had reached out because what they do is look for Black baseball players to honor with a headstone. So they contacted us, and we [were] so grateful, because those were some of the things that we had been talking about to begin to memorialize and honor our ancestors' lives.
Lewis-Thompson: Monday’s ceremony is not just about a headstone dedication. Your organization, Descendants of the Saint Louis University Enslaved—or DSLUE—is launching its website. How did DSLUE come about?
Proudie: Once we got contacted by the Society of Jesus, we were like, ‘Oh, my God.’ We found out that there were three known family groups that they had located in St. Louis. And come to find out, we are all related as well. So we decided to come together to organize so that we can find and locate our families. And we want to have a place here in the Midwest Southern region to bring everybody together so that we can heal together.
Lewis-Thompson: What does your organization hope to achieve?
Proudie: We hope to educate the public on this history. We hope to do that by the descendant voices. We feel that it’s important that we tell our stories from our perspective. So those are the goals. Also, we hope St. Louis University [recognizes] us and acknowledges us. And we hope that moving forward they will work with us to heal and to reconcile what has been done.
Lewis-Thompson: When you say heal, what exactly does that look like to you?
Proudie: The degradation of our family. The tearing apart of our families. That psychological toll that it took on us. We see the remnants of that today. So when I say heal, we need to collaborate with those who caused this problem with our family lineage. And begin to help us holistically heal. Yes, acknowledgement. We are thankful that [St. Louis University] has acknowledged that this has been done, but also want to move past the symbolic gestures and go into the reconciliation part that they have spoken about and we agree with.
Lewis-Thompson: Does that also mean a financial component to it?
Proudie: We talk about this often, and everybody has different opinions on what that looks like. But we definitely agree that financial compensation is important so that we can pay for programs. So we can pay for our health care. So we can pay for the mental health care and education and economic empowerment initiatives that DSLUE is going to bring about.
Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011