Slavery, Jesuits, and freedom on American borderlands: An interview with Kelly Schmidt

Author: Philip Byers

Schmidt Interviewimg

Kelly Schmidt is a doctoral candidate in history at Loyola University Chicago. She received a Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center in 2019 to support archival research for her dissertation, “‘We heard sometimes their earnest desire to be free in a free country’: Enslaved People, Jesuit Masters, and Negotiations for Freedom on American Borderlands.” Philip Byers caught up with Kelly in the fall to discuss her work.

Philip Byers: What makes the experiences of enslaved people in Jesuit communities a vital aspect of American Catholic history?

Kelly Schmidt: As the Jesuits re-emerged from their decades-long suppression (c. 1773–1814), coerced labor from enslaved communities enabled them to expand their missionary and educational presence west. Bringing enslaved people with them from Maryland, the Jesuits established a presence in Missouri in 1823, and from there, in Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, and beyond. While the experiences of enslaved people have been critically understudied in American Catholic history, numerous scholars have begun to examine the lives of enslaved Catholics and enslaved people owned by Catholic lay people, clergy, and women religious. Many scholars argue that Catholicism, while meaningful to some people of African descent, was not extensive among enslaved people because the Church did not do enough to minister to them; one such scholar writes that “the wonder is not that Catholicism declined among the slaves of the rural South but that it survived at all.” If Catholicism offered no wellspring for resistance in some instances, the enslaved communities I have studied reveal several forms of resistance that drew upon their Catholic faith or knowledge of Catholicism. Many descendants remained Catholic well into the 20th century and built strong and politically active Catholic communities.

PB: What first piqued your interest in the topic?

KS: I have been learning about the lives of enslaved people since childhood. When I pursued my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to continue studying the history of slavery in the United States, including its impact on peoples’ lives through to the present and the ways they have resisted their oppression. I am the product of Jesuit education, both at Xavier University where I received my undergraduate degrees and at Loyola University Chicago, where I have earned my masters and am completing my doctorate. As I learned more about the Jesuits’ involvement in slaveholding, I knew it was my calling to keep trying to discover—and share—as much as I could about the lives of the people whose unfree labor had supported the religious order and its institutions that have so shaped me.

PB: What role did the development of community play among enslaved people, and how did Catholicism inform the type of community they cultivated? 

KS: Slavery frequently and violently disrupted enslaved peoples’ lives and relationships. Sales broke families apart. Family and community were thus important ways the enslaved sought to surmount the conditions of slavery and assert their humanity. Based on shared experiences, enslaved people formed ‘fictive kinships’ with extended family and fellow bondspeople who were not blood relations. While many enslaved people embraced forms of evangelical Christianity, I have found that enslaved people owned by the Jesuits used Catholicism to solidify and protect their communities.

Jesuits had regulations against separating enslaved families, though they did so anyway, but Jesuits did not recognize fictive kinships as enslaved people did, so they did not hesitate to separate people who shared these relationships. For example, when a man named Isaac Hawkins requested permission from the Jesuits in Missouri to return to Maryland to visit blood relatives, extended family, and kin, the Jesuits recorded that he wanted to visit his “friends,” diminishing the strength of the family ties—biological and constructed—that Isaac shared with them. Through studying relationships in sacramental records, I am finding that enslaved people used Catholic sacraments to formalize relationships with one another, strengthening their community network and reinforcing their masters’ recognition of those relationships. A bondsperson’s marriage to another enslaved person sometimes convinced the Jesuits to purchase the bondsperson’s spouse, protecting the spouse from being separated from family when a master moved or decided to sell the person. Moreover, the same few bondspeople repeatedly stood as sponsors at sacraments and marriages, suggesting that certain people within the enslaved community held honorific roles, perhaps as elders. These community bonds carried over into freedom. Once separated geographically by slavery, former bondspeople migrated toward one another in the years immediately following abolition, often living in community in regions surrounding local Catholic churches. They labored together, contributing resources to support one another and their black Catholic parishes, where they continued to stand for one another at baptisms and marriages and promote black advancement.

PB: Your project title emphasizes the significance of the “American borderlands.” What specific borderlands do you have in mind, and how did distinctives of place and region factor into the religious lives and practices of your subjects? 

KS: My study includes two different types of borderlands. As their missionary work expanded, Jesuits primarily settled in states on the boundaries of the West or bordering the slaveholding South and the North, where slavery was illegal. These were key locales where people fought to defend slavery but also where it was most effectively challenged. My work explores how the communities enslaved by the Jesuits paid attention to and utilized these tensions for the sake of their own liberty. Moreover, they shaped the power relationships at play between the enslaved, the Jesuits, and the people to whom the Jesuits sought to minister. Borderland encounters provided unique avenues for community formation and for seeking freedom. Bondspeople took advantage of the spaces and institutions surrounding them—such as the church, the courts, and the proximity of a free state—to pursue freedom and greater rights. Enslaved people in border states such as Missouri and Maryland had opportunities to mingle with a large free black population, had close access to free states, and thus had means to take advantage of the courts to sue for their freedom.

Region also played a significant role in shaping enslaved peoples’ religious lives. Little survives to offer us a direct perspective of how enslaved people approached faith, but sacramental records suggest regional difference in how race and slavery shaped black Catholics’ experience of Catholicism. In border states like Missouri and Kentucky, for example, all recorded sacraments were entered in ledgers chronologically, but people of color were further demarcated by their skin tone or status: sometimes simply as “colored” or “black,” but also with phrases like “of the Ethiopian race,” “servant of St. Stanislaus,” “servant of ours,” or “slave of St. Louis University.” In a Deep South state like Louisiana, sacramental records were often entirely segregated into “white” and “colored” volumes. The same is reflected in sodality and confraternity records.

Segregation within church records also reflects how people of color were able to use the worship spaces available to them. At St. Ferdinand Church in Florissant, Missouri, people of color had to sit in a separate gallery in a wing of the church overlooking the altar. Over time, Jesuits established a “colored chapel” for their own bondspeople to attend services on the plantation rather than traveling the two miles to join kin in worship. Similarly, enslaved people of Saint Louis University and other people of color in the city attended Mass from the back of Saint Francis Xavier College Church until a Jesuit established a “negro chapel” in a small upstairs room in the front triforium of the church. In freedom, Jesuits designated specific churches for black Catholics. Similar patterns existed in other areas where enslaved people labored for the Jesuits.

PB: Tell us about an especially illuminating source that you found in the Notre Dame Archives while researching your project.

KS: In the Notre Dame Archives, I had the opportunity to learn more about the lives of enslaved people that the Jesuits owned when they operated St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown, Kentucky, and St. Mary’s College in Lebanon, Kentucky. Sacramental records for the Catholic churches in Bardstown and Lebanon revealed the identities of some of the bondspeople and their familial relationships, which will enable me to research their experiences further.

I also found correspondence from Reverend James M. Lancaster, a diocesan priest, that shed light on a more obscure reference I had found previously. It regarded an exchange of two enslaved youths, Charley and Alfred, between St. Joseph’s College and a local merchant. Not only did this tell me more about the forced separations Charley and Alfred experienced and what their daily lives were like, it also speaks to the fluidity of ownership of bondspeople in the Catholic Church and U.S. society in general. It is not possible to speak of “enslaved people used by the Jesuits” without speaking of people owned by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Sisters of Loretto, the Vincentians, local diocesan clergy, neighboring lay Catholics, and so forth. Slavery was a total institution shared across American society, and its totality affected every aspect of enslaved life. In Charley and Alfred’s case, it meant that nothing about where they labored and with whom they were in relationship was secure. Did they belong to the Jesuits at the college, the diocese who handed over management of the college to the Jesuits, or to the merchant with whom they were exchanged? And did it matter, since all claimed ownership over these young men and could demand their labor at any time?

PB: To what types of audiences have you presented your research, and how do you approach reaching both the academy and the Church? 

KS: As a public historian, I believe that history has direct relevance to the present day and that conveying the past to and with public audiences and stakeholders is a form of activism that can contribute to transforming historical injustices that endure in the present. My project takes place at a moment when descendants of the enslaved people whom the Jesuits once owned are now in conversation with the Jesuits about how the Society of Jesus will work with descendants against racial inequities that stem from its history of slaveholding. My work can serve as a resource by which descendants access their families’ stories and use their experiences to address slavery’s enduring legacy of racism. It also serves as a means to assist Jesuits in examining their privileges gained through oppressive systems and how these privileges perpetuate racial inequality.

In light of this, I have been working to share what I have learned and make it as accessible as possible, including through public presentations and individual conversations with descendants and descendant communities. I aim to privilege the voices of descendant communities—who have knowledge that historical records do not contain—as we shape the narrative about their enslaved ancestors. Oral history helps counterbalance the scarcity of records that exist from the perspectives of their ancestors.

Additionally, I give presentations to and have conversations with Jesuit communities, colleges and high schools, parishes, as well as Catholic communities more broadly, to share with them their institutions’ and the Church’s role in the history of slaveholding. With knowledge of their institutions’ history, we can raise the question: What are our institutions doing or not doing, to, for, and with communities we have historically harmed? St. Elizabeth’s Parish, St. Malachy’s Parish, Holy Guardian Angels Parish, and St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Louis—these historically black Catholic churches are all now closed. Black Catholic parishioners continue to attend other parishes, some historically black but no longer segregated, but cite these closures as part of a history of consistent neglect by the diocese and the Church as a whole. I aim to support what many others are already doing, raising awareness in the Church and among its members, both lay and religious, that we have a long history of complicity in sustaining racial inequity and a long way to go in addressing persistent inequities.

PB: Where do you see your project going next?

KS: There is so much more to learn. Most of what I know thus far is about the lives of the enslaved people upon whom the Jesuits relied in Missouri, but I am working to build understanding of populations held in slavery by the Jesuits in Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, and elsewhere. I am also working to understand what the enslaved communities’ lives were like in freedom and what skills, strategies, resources, values, and networks they carried with them. Using digital humanities methodologies, I am developing network maps that analyze patterns existing in enslaved kin communities and how these relationships evolved in freedom. Further, I am mapping the movements of these communities into freedom to find out how their relationships influenced where they chose to live and labor and how they shaped society. 

Philip Byers is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame, where he also serves as a research fellow at the Cushwa Center. 

This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.