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Speak Their Names

This episode is the first of a two-part tribute to a man whose passion for social justice and cultural memory impacted hundreds of people in the St. Louis region: Dr. Jonathan Cedric Smith, who died this year on Juneteenth. Among many community roles, he served on the board of St. Louis Public Radio. Last year, Lauren and Jia Lian had the opportunity to interview Dr. Smith about his perspective as Co-Chair of the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project. To introduce you to this project and Dr. Smith’s role in it, we speak with Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, afternoon newscaster and general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Then, we travel back in time to share Jonathan’s own words about what the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project meant to him. Finally, historian Dr. Kelly Schmidt will explain how Jonathan’s care for descendant communities shaped the project and his youngest brother, Jacques, will share how Jonathan’s passion for cultural memory, ancestry, and history began.

Speak Their Names Transcript

Seg 1

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

Jia Lian: Hey everyone, it’s Jia Lian

This episode is the first of a two-part tribute to a man whose passion for social justice and cultural memory impacted hundreds of people in the St. Louis region: Dr. Jonathan Cedric Smith, who died this year on Juneteenth.

He was a father of daughters, husband, and brother; a poet and music minister; a scholar-activist, who served on the boards of The Black Rep and St. Louis Public Radio.

At St. Louis University, he was a professor of American and African American Studies who stepped into senior leadership roles following campus protests during the Ferguson uprising.

Last year, Lauren and I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Smith about his perspective as Co-Chair of the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project.

To introduce you to this project and Dr. Smith’s role in it, we’re speaking with Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, afternoon newscaster and general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

[music fades out]

Jia Lian: Hey Marissanne. Thanks for joining us on We Live Here. Can you tell us about the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project?

Marissanne: It is a joint effort between St. Louis University and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States to just examine the role the university played in enslaving African-Americans. This effort started in 2016, and they basically learned that they did have a lot to do with enslaving people and the institution of slavery. 

It started with bringing three enslaved couples from the White Marsh Plantation in Maryland. And from there, many other people were brought and there are just so many, like a tree, branches that are connected to this really, really devastating piece of not only American history, but Missouri history.

Jia Lian: Something that Jonathan often said to people involved with the project was the importance of centering the descendants of those who were enslaved by the Jesuits. How did that framework impact the project?

Marissanne: I think it started with the goal of one finding out, “OK, what exactly was the involvement here, what exactly went on?” And the overall goal was, “Oh, how about once we find these things, let's make sure that we are able to find and connect with the descendants of these people that were enslaved by this institution, by the Jesuits. And let's find a way to give them this information so that they can have it.” 

Because it's one thing to know that, yes, I have ancestors who were enslaved and that's about it. It's another thing to be like, “Oh, I have enslaved ancestors. These are their names. This is what their days look like. This is their story. This is how they got here.” Attaching a name, attaching a face to such a devastating part of history is a big deal.

Jia Lian: You actually got the chance to talk to some of the descendants. What were some of the various reactions and perspectives that you heard from them?

Marissanne: It was overwhelming to learn this information because you don't expect it. 

There was one descendant that I spoke with who didn't even know about the project, but had gone to St. Louis University, right? She got her degree from this institution and little did she know that this is the same institution that enslaved her ancestors many moons ago. And that was a surprising piece of information like imagine going to the school, paying a ton of money to go to this institution that is not cheap, only to find out that your ancestors helped build this institution for free that you are now paying to go to. 

Then you had others where it was like a connecting the dots kind of moment. Which was really fascinating to me because there was one descendent, who from Missouri, born and raised. She had moved out to Maryland for another opportunity. And when she got this news that, “hey, we have information about a relative of yours that was enslaved by the Jesuits and the university, and we want to tell you about it” and then discovering that, “hey, where you are currently living right now in that area, that is that is near the plantation where your ancestors were before they were forced to come to Missouri.” 

And that's just one of those those kind of full circle moments that you don't really expect to have, but to actually be in the physical space and place of where so much trauma took place. And you're able to, like, be there physically and, you know, like, “oh, my goodness, like I had family here, you know, that I never knew, they never knew me. But I am their wildest dream. Like, who would have thought? 

Jia Lian: As journalists, we're sometimes expected to be objective in how we report and we try to be fair, nuanced. You still are a person and you're a Black woman covering this project. How did you personally relate to the project and covering it?

Marissanne: Almost a year ago next month, my grandmother passed away and I had this lingering sense of regret for not asking enough questions about her life, her family's life, what it was like growing up in the South, all those sorts of things. 

When I met the descendants that I ended up talking to for the story, I became even more curious about my ancestry. And I started you know, asking my aunt and my mom and I started questions and I started digging and digging and digging and digging. 

And I found information that I never thought I would. It was very emotional, it's like, wow, like I have a whole name, like people talk about it all the time. Like, “oh yeah. You know, like I'm Cherokee or I'm this I'm that,” you know, but there's like no actual proof. It's just kind of hearsay.

But I was able to find like my Choctaw ancestry with names, the experiences, all these people. It was something that I was not expecting to know and to actually put a name to it. It was a lot. 

In moments like this for projects like this, it gives kind of descendants, Black people or anyone who is interested in learning about their their ancestry, the ability to have some sort of confidence in themselves, to be able to look up this information and kind of play your own inspector, if you will, detective, if you will. 

[thoughtful music comes in, with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

And that's kind of the beauty of this project that, yes, while there is a complex range of emotions that are going on, this history is now out there for people to know, people to learn about. And we can further educate people. And I think that was like the overall goal. 

Indirectly, the work that Jonathan did inspired so many people, including myself, to dig a little deeper. And in digging, you find things. And it's an adventure that I am still, [chuckles] digging through. And it's exciting. But it's also, it's sad. But, you know, you cannot change history. You can learn from it. And you can also put out the proper narrative as well.

Jia Lian: For Jonathan, this work was personal, so up next, we’ll travel back in time to share his own words about what the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project meant to him

And then, historian Dr. Kelly Schmidt will explain how Jonathan’s care for descendant communities shaped the project and his youngest brother, Jacques will explain how Jonathan’s passion for cultural memory, ancestry, and history began.

From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX, this is We Live Here.

Seg 2

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

Jia Lian: Lauren and I met Dr. Jonathan Smith and several researchers from the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project last year in January.

We traveled to sites that are important for understanding the lives of enslaved people who were forcibly brought by Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests and brothers from Maryland to Missouri in the early 1800s.

Those enslaved people would involuntarily support the Jesuits’ missionary activity in the West and build the institution that would become St. Louis University.

The first historic site we visited was St. Stanislaus Seminary, also known as the Old Rock Building in North St. Louis County.

It was impressive, made with white limestone from local quarries and sturdy walnut from the surrounding area and the Missouri River.

The seminary was part of a plantation where Jesuits-in-training forced enslaved people to farm, do laundry, cook, clean, and construct new buildings by hand.

The researchers wanted us to understand the lived experiences of enslaved people, so we walked up snowy steps to go inside.

[music fades out]

[Steps on crunching snow, walking into the building fades in]

Jia Lian: It’s now the main building for a private boarding school.

[Steps on wooden stairs with students chattering]

Jia Lian: We walked past students, through halls filled with ornate wood paneling and detailed crown molding into a basement where wood beams showed ax marks and the walls exposed the hand carved limestone behind it.

As important as it was to grasp the horrors of slavery, Jonathan also challenged us to notice the craftsmanship and virtuosity practiced by Black hands from the foundation to the steeple.

Jonathan: My parents were born to sharecroppers in segregated Alabama. My father was a carpenter and I worked with him many years when I was a teenager doing things just like this, you know, building foundations and framing out doors and putting up putting up ceilings. And so I know what my father did. 

And it's-- it seems weird to me to imagine that my fa- my father, myself, my grandparents were descended from people like this, only discover excellence and pride in their labor after the end of slavery. 

I mean, that just doesn't seem-- that just seems fully irrational. So I think it's important for us to really, you know, as we stand in a place like this to to do that imaginative work on a day like this when it's in the 30s outside. It's like, what was it like to live here in slave quarters after you built this thing, right? You built this place that kept other people, you know, fully warm and safe and protected from the elements. And then to have to live in a place that was less than. 

Jia Lian: The ugly legacy of slavery persists even after death.

Many people who were enslaved by the Jesuits are still buried in unmarked graves in a place now called Spanish Land Grant Park.

Others are buried in unmarked graves in Calvary Cemetery, which we visited to view a memorial marker to the first six enslaved people who were brought by the Jesuits to Missouri.

In contrast to the mausoleums, sculptures, crosses, and headstones, which memorialized wealthier white people and Jesuit enslavers…

The memorial to those who were enslaved is a simple stone placard that reads: “Tom and Polly, Moses and Nancy, Isaac and Succy, who accompanied the pioneer founders and whose labor, not freely given, helped to establish Jesuit presence in the Midwest.”

Jonathan: It's deeply, deeply important that we reimagine who people are, right? And in order-- if we can make ourselves reimagine who these people were, that they weren't property, that they weren't objects, that they weren't commodities, that what we're talking about are human beings and their families. 

[plane flies overhead] If we can if we can really reimagine people in that way, then I think we can actually begin to do research differently. We can begin to understand our culture differently. We can begin to understand history, history differently. 

So I stand here now and look at this. This this memorial says it that says in memory of three slave couples and it has their-- the six first names. 

Today, it strikes me in a different way because I think, well, what is it about creating a memorial like that that would allow us culturally to put that there and go on without immediately trying to find out, well, who were these six people?

Jia Lian: Reimagining the lives of enslaved people requires passion and persistence.

Because it wasn’t until 1870 that Black people were counted as citizens in the U.S. Census.

Jonathan called it a brick wall for researchers and genealogists who have a hard time tracking names and locations of African Americans prior to that year.

But he believed that the quiet and sometimes tedious work of researching, piecing together records and ledgers, and visiting historical sites was a sacred and important step toward a more reconciled and just world.

Jonathan: I think of Toni Morrison and Beloved, right? So the way that that novel opens, one of the things that that that that happens in that novel, it's about the ghosts and the memories of people who are not there, whose names have been lost. 

And so at the beginning of the novel, Toni Morrison, one of the characters talks about how there are people in this place so that the people, [birds chirping] it's like once people inhabit a place on some level, they never leave a place. And so their ghosts are always there. 

And so I think it's important for us, too, to remember consistently that wherever we are, people have been there before and whatever they've done there, it's still there. It remains one way or another whether we can see it or not. 

And then at the end of the novel, some of my favorite lines in literature, there's a phrase that Toni Morrison uses about this ghost child, Beloved. And she says that she was disremembered and unaccounted for. And she says at one point that people were looking for her, but you can't look for her if you didn't know her name. And so this project is pulling people out of disrememory and bringing them back into a space where they can be accounted for and searched for. 

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

And so I think if we if we remember all of the people who have gone before us or or just remember that they are, there are throngs and multitudes of people of every race, every religion who have gone on before us then then we can do so we can do some real work. 

And one of the things that we've seen today and talked about today, we've talked about, we've talked about Europeans from everywhere. We've talked about Indigenous people. We've talked about children. We've talked about enslaved people. We've talked about free Black people. 

And in that space that we're talking about, which is about a 40 year period, it's like those are all the people we're talking about, right? And that's a much more diverse and complicated set of people than free white people and slaves. And if we can, I think the more we can do to amplify that, then we'll all be better off. 

Jia Lian: Dr. Jonathan Smith’s passion for social justice and cultural memory was deeply tied to his respect for descendants of enslaved people as well as his search for his own ancestry.

So up next, we’ll hear from historian Dr. Kelly Schmidt about how Jonathan’s care for descendant communities impacted her approach to the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project.

And Jonathan’s youngest brother, Jacques, will share how Jonathan was the family genealogist back when researching African American family histories was even more difficult than it is today.

[music fades out]

Seg 3

Jia Lian: Dr. Kelly Schmidt is a Jesuit-educated historian and the former research coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project.

She remembers how Dr. Jonathan Smith always reminded the research team that enslaved people didn’t let themselves be defined by their enslaved status.

Instead, they sought to live full lives and pursue joy in the face of their oppression.

Kelly: And he would use this really visual example of a mother teaching her child how to walk. And he'd say, “You don't look at a mother teaching your child to walk and say, ‘Oh, how sad, because they're enslaved.’ You know that mother is finding a few moments of joy in watching her child take their first steps, even in the midst of her hardships.” 

And so he encouraged us not just to document what enslaved people suffered or what their owners did, but how enslaved people shaped their communities and developed skills, pursued art, music, things like that in telling their stories. 

Jia Lian: Uncovering and sharing the full stories of enslaved people was deeply important to Jonathan, partly because he wished he could access the stories of his own ancestors.

Kelly: He said he was envious of being able to trace those stories farther back of the work we were doing, and he tells the story of his great great grandmother [laughs] and I had to write down her name, because he said he first learned of her name as Harriet Griggs.

But when he went to a family reunion, he learned from his great uncle that her real name, and I hope I get this right, was Hatsie Harriet Martha Keeler Wright Yoletta Kitt Tekila Bonnie Clara Sarah Ann Virginia Jane Reeves Carter Griggs. [laughs] Which is a mouthful, and he would say that her name was representative of what her experience was as an enslaved person. 

He said she was probably born around the 1840s and that series of names represents all the times that she was probably forcibly sold away between owners, transferred and made to live and labor on new plantations and assign new names. And that maybe later in her life, she adopted new names after becoming free or picked up names through her kin or through marriage. 

And that that string of names is a way of mapping her identity and mapping her transition through those spaces and the experiences she had and also shows how much violence, slavery and forced relocation did to enslaved people's lives and their ability to trace their history in ways that we often use traditionally, and that enslaved people would use things like geographic place and naming and oral history, and oral tradition, to hold on to those memories and hold on to these testimonies and pass them on to their families. 

Jia Lian: Jonathan brought this reverence for stories and cultural memory to his role as co-director of the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project where he advocated not just for the direct descendants of people enslaved by St. Louis University and the Jesuits.

But also for descendant communities of African Americans from Black faculty, staff and students to members of the community where St. Louis University is situated.

Kelly: He was adamant that representatives of the oppressing institution can't make decisions for the people they harmed because they don't know what's best for them and that descendants know best how these actions have affected them and what needs to be done. 

So he always said we cannot, we will not anticipate what descendants may ask of us. And when we had that first working group meeting, he made it very clear to everyone that we were working from a blank slate, that we weren't going to anticipate potential outcomes, and thus confine what we might be able to creatively embrace and engage in a full range of possible responses. 

Jia Lian: Jonathan’s dedication to honoring the full humanity of enslaved people shaped Kelly’s approach to her dissertation…

Which was entitled: “‘We heard sometimes their earnest desire to be free in a free country’: Enslaved People, Jesuit Masters, and Negotiations for Freedom on American Borderlands.”

Later, she requested that Jonathan be the person to place a doctoral hood over her head when she received her PhD from Loyola Chicago.

Kelly: And he organized this whole mini hooding ceremony at SLU (St. Louis University) and gave a beautiful speech where he was using internal rhyme and asking everyone to say the name of my dissertation title and think about what each word meant and just really cheering me on. 

And that meant so much to me, and that was the last thing we were able to do together before his passing, and I really cherish having that moment with him. 

Jia Lian: Jonathan occupied some major roles-- from university administrator to the co-chair of the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project.

But what Kelly will remember most is how he took the time to personally show kindness and love to those around him.

Kelly: He wasn't just a colleague. He was a mentor, a friend and really a father figure in my life. And I think a lot of people on our team felt the same way.

Even during the pandemic when we couldn't go and see each other. He made sure he was checking in on us and caring for us and would invite us to Saturday morning Zoom brunches where we would all sit in our kitchens and cook our food together and talk and eat and have a conversation. 

And he made sure that he was supporting and encouraging us not only in our work, but in our personal lives and cheering us on.

And going forward, she's hoping to follow his example as well.

Kelly: He was always sharing ideas that were beyond our comprehension, but also doing it in a way that was very approachable and very on the level of the people he was talking with. 

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

And I hope to embody that in my work in what I do and always making sure I'm showing care for everyone that I'm working with and not getting lost in all the tasks and priorities and commitments that I'm engaging in that I'm not not seeing the people that are in my life. 

To understand where Jonathan’s passion for social justice and cultural memory began, we spoke to his youngest brother, Jacques.

[music fades out]

Jacques: He was our de facto genealogist in our family. Like he researched our grandparents, our great grandparents and our great great grandparents to find out who they were, what their names were and what stories he could glean. And he did this by talking to our grandparents and our grand uncles and aunts to get this information. 

And nowadays, you know, 2021, when I tell that story to some people, it seems not remarkable. It seems like. Oh, yeah, of course you can do that because we have ancestry.com now and you just pay a fee and it's done. 

But Jonathan was doing this in the 1980s, so it was before the Internet. It was before websites dedicated to you finding your family history. He was going to county record places when we would go out of town to stay in Alabama or in Illinois, get whatever records he could from the Census Bureau or the government, and then trace our family back as much as he could. And it was always important to him. 

Jia Lian: Jonathan was 24 years old when his maternal grandmother died…

And at her funeral, he read a poem filled with family names from elders to toddlers.

Jacques: If you know Black funerals, they're pretty staid, you know, the emotion is high. But he got a standing ovation for a poem in 1983 because it was so filled with history and it tied people together in such a great way.

Jia Lian: By speaking those family names, Jonathan wove together a rich tapestry of Blackness, faith, and social justice.

He was born in Montgomery, Alabama as the second of five children to J.C. Smith and Willie Mae Smith, who were both second children in large sharecropping families.

Jacques: My father was arrested with Dr. King in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, it started in '55. But he was arrested and that was his first car. He always says he wore out his first car, taking people around town in Montgomery. And so that was part of what he was. And he was probably 25, 26 years old at that time. 

My mother a few years later worked in Dr. King's office. She was one of his assistants. And I know nowadays, because we imagine the Nobel Prize winning Dr. King, we imagine he had this huge office with a lot of people working. That was not the case. There were two people working in that office, Hazel Gregory and my mother. 

So when Dr. King was talking about his staff at that point, it was Willie Mae Smith, [laughs] my mother, and Hazel Gregory, and that was it. So she had a lot of interaction with him in terms of at that point, it wasn't computer, it was just typing letters and sending letters, keeping his schedule. 

But those two people, my parents, intimately involved in the civil rights movement while they were in Alabama before they moved to Illinois. Jonathan was born in Alabama. I was actually because I was the last I was born in Illinois after my parents had moved there. But their desire to take risk for justice, their desire to put themselves on the line for equity and equality is what was passed on to us. 

Jia Lian: They moved to Harvey, Illinois when Jonathan was around five years old as part of the Great Migration.

Willie Mae worked as a public school teacher, while J.C. worked as a pastor and carpenter, who would later retire as the longest serving Black school board member in Illinois.

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

Jacques: My father would always say, put your hands on something. That was his way of saying do work. Do work, be active. And that's my father saying that to his sons and his daughter, make sure you're working to constantly make the world a better place for your family, for yourself and for those around you. 

Jia Lian: Jonathan’s work with the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project was just one way he followed in his parents’ footsteps as an educator, steward, and builder of cultural memory, who helped to construct the foundations and frameworks for a cathedral of names and stories that connect our present to the lived experiences of the past…

Where the ceiling is left open for communities of descendants to sketch the blueprints that detail their hopes for accountability and reconciliation.

[thoughtful music with keys and beats, followed by bass clarinet]

This show is produced by me, Jia Lian Yang.

And my co-producer, Lauren Brown.

This show is overseen by Jade Harrell, Director of On-Demand and Community Partnerships for St. Louis Public Radio.

St. Louis Public Radio is a member-supported service of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX, this is We Live Here.

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Jia Lian Yang holds both a Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary. She is the co-founder of the St. Louis-based Who Raised You? podcast, which explores culture and family with a focus on stories from people of color. The show won the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis’ 2018 stARTup competition. And this year, St. Louis Magazine’s editors named it the best local podcast.
Lauren Brown holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri where she also studied Social Justice. Lauren joined St. Louis Public Radio in June 2019 as an associate producer for the We Live Here podcast. In March 2020 she became the co-host and producer for We Live Here.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.