Growing up, it was no secret in Clay Westfall Mering’s house that his great-great grandfather had been a wealthy slave owner.
In fact, James S. Rollins, who is known today as the “founding father” of the University of Missouri, had as many as 36 slaves on his sprawling plantation.
Mering, 52, who works as an architect in Tucson, Ariz., hadn’t thought much about Rollins until he read in the newspaper that the Rev. Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Conrad Sharpton, was once owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Sen. Strom Thurmond’s great-great grandfather.
“That got me thinking about my own ancestry and slavery,” says Rollins. “I knew that I needed to do something.”
In an effort to come to terms with his great-great grandfather’s involvement in slavery, Mering announced that he was donating $25,000 to the University of Missouri’s Black studies department for the creation of the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Fund.
The permanently endowed fund, which was finalized late last year, was created to support student and faculty research on topics related to slavery and attendance at conferences and seminars that examine the impact and effects of slavery in the United States.
“This is a significant gesture and we are grateful for Mr. Mering’s generosity,” says Michael Middleton, who is the deputy chancellor at MU. “It would be wonderful to see a groundswell of similar efforts and contributions come from this. It is a gift from the heart, which is gratifying to all parties involved. If more people in our country made similar selfless gestures, we would all be in a better situation.”
At first, Mering says, the university wanted simply to create a generic title for the endowment fund, but Mering and his family objected, threatening to pull the funds unless administrators agreed to the words slavery and atonement in the title of the endowment.
“I think calling it a slavery atonement fund speaks to the need to atone for ancestors who had slaves and had a lot of slaves,” says Mering, who adds that Rollins’ father, Anthony Wayne Rollins, also owned about 75 slaves. “In fact, I felt that it needed to be addressed by name and not just addressed euphemistically.”
And what might James Rollins — a seasoned Missouri politician who was chiefly responsible for overseeing the creation of the University of Missouri — think about the creation of an endowment for Black studies bearing his name?
“I would like to think that maybe his opinions would have evolved over time,” says Mering, whose parents also attended MU.
University officials acknowledge that Rollins has long been considered an iconic figure on campus. It was Rollins who rallied support to pass the law that opened the university, and officials say he later donated land for the original campus and raised $114,000 from neighbors to ensure that the school would be headquartered in Columbia,Mo.
Later, Rollins would serve on the Board of Curators — the governing body of the university — for 18 years. He died in 1888.
“He was definitely a big man on campus,” says Mering, who believes that his greatgreat grandfather and other slave owners lent out their slaves for the construction of the first buildings on campus.
“With 15 percent of the population enslaved at the time, it seems almost a certainty to me that people would have donated the labor of their slaves,” he says.
“This needs to be addressed publicly and urgently … a step needs to be taken right away acknowledging this probable thing … that slavery existed in the first years of the university.
“University officials cannot confirm that slave labor was used to build the university, but add that they are looking into the issue.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wilma King, the Arvarh E. Strickland Distinguished Professor of history and the interim director of the Black studies program, says that the funds from the endowment may support research about the men, women and children owned by Rollins or others with connections to MU.
“The possibilities are boundless,” she says. For his part, Mering hopes that the endowment will prompt a critical discussionon campus about the role of slavery and its long-lasting impact.
Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems, a tenured professor in the English Department and Black studies program, says that she welcomes that kind of talk and lauds Mering for encouraging the dialogue.
“We still have racial problems here at the University of Missouri,” says Hudson-Weems, who adds that the university lags far behind other colleges and universities in recruiting and retaining Black faculty. Of the full-time faculty at the university, 3 percent are Black.
“It seems to me that since we are talking about atonement, we need to make university administrators atone for its horrible treatment of African-American faculty over all of these years,” she says.
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