By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
A few years ago, Dr. Katrina Thompson Moore, an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University, was helping her niece prepare for a high school social studies test on the U.S. Civil War era. Because Dr. Moore’s area of study is the institution of slavery, she could offer her niece insight beyond what she was learning in the textbook. Unfortunately, the teacher wasn’t interested in anything beyond the textbook, which referred to enslaved people as “immigrant workers.”
Dr. Moore’s niece learned a lesson that day, but she didn’t learn the truth about slavery, at least not in the classroom.
“High school students know very little about the institution of slavery,” Dr. Moore says. “What they do know is a version I call ‘Gone with the Wind’ slavery – very idealized and romanticized, but it’s not the truth. Not telling the truth causes problems. History is something to learn from. Not to feel guilty about, but to realize the complexity of humans and our history.”
To present the truth of slavery, Dr. Moore worked with Dr. Ron Rebore, the provincial assistant for secondary and presecondary education (PASE) for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province, and the staff at the Jesuits’ Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project (SHMR) to come up with a program for the high schools in the UCS Province.
Originally envisioned as an in-person workshop, Drs. Rebore and Moore pivoted over the summer to offer a five-week, 10-presentation virtual program called Sharing the Whole Story: Teaching the Complex History and Legacy of American Slavery. Dr. Moore designed the workshop and recruited expert presenters, Sara Smith of the province secondary education office handled the technology, and Dr. Rebore spread the word to the schools in the UCS Province and beyond.
“As a former high school history teacher, I knew the challenges of teaching the history of slavery in the classroom,” Dr. Rebore said. “Reading the signs of the times – with our schools developing diversity, equity and inclusion programs, SHMR researching Jesuit slaveholding, and the racial and political divide in our country magnified by the death of George Floyd – I thought this would be an ideal time to develop a program to help teachers build curriculum that is historically accurate and effective in helping students understand the past, so they can work to make the present and future equitable for all Americans.”
Learning the Truth
The Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province established SHMR in 2016 to research the history of Jesuit slaveholding and the lives of the people held in bondage by Jesuits. Researchers have since learned that approximately 200 men, women and children were owned, “rented” or “borrowed” by Jesuits in the states that make up this province. Jesuits in other parts of the country were also slaveholders.
The forced labor of these people helped ensure the success of Jesuit institutions across the country. This historical truth has often been overlooked or ignored. Dr. Moore, who’s been involved with the slavery research initiative from its beginnings, wants to change that.
“People should understand the complexity of the school they’re going to,” she said.
Like many institutions of its age, Saint Louis University benefited from the work of enslaved people. In 2020, Dr. Moore, herself a Descendant of enslaved people, taught a course called Jesuits, SLU and Slavery. “It was the first time on this campus that we focused on slavery holistically and Jesuit slaveholding specifically, and how that looked, and how to reflect on that,” she said.
Seeing the misconceptions brought to the classroom by her college students reinforced for Dr. Moore that education – sharing the whole story – had to begin earlier. Thus, she was enthusiastic about working with Dr. Rebore and the SHMR staff.
Recent research by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) indicates that most U.S. schools are failing in their approach to teaching the “the hard history of African enslavement.” Their findings reveal that high school teachers feel ill equipped, and many textbooks don’t even cover the subject.
“The educators who registered for the workshop have a desire to do a better job teaching about slavery and racism,” Dr. Moore said. “These teachers did it in a tumultuous time for high school and middle school teachers because they have to defend telling the truth in the classroom.”
Frank Kovarik is an English teacher and the director of equity and inclusion at St. Louis University High School. He attended the virtual workshop along with 40 other Jesuit educators across the country.
“It’s important for teachers to be able to teach the history of slavery with the proper degree of sophistication and sensitivity,” he said. “It’s especially important for teachers at Jesuit institutions because of the Society’s history of slaveholding.”
Kovarik is now working with the other SLUH teachers who participated in the workshop. “We’ll collaborate on how to use what we’ve learned in our classrooms and broaden the impact to the rest of the school.”
Understanding the history of slaveholding and its legacy of racism will help students understand their world. Studies show that exposing students to African-American history early reduces ideas of racism.
“They understand that Black Lives Matter is important because it wasn’t always true,” Dr. Moore said. “Imagine the impact if all of our teachers passed this on to all of the students they taught over the course of their careers. It would be immeasurable!
“The way we get rid of structural racism is defeat it in a classroom. Then our students go on to defeat it in their worlds.”