April 7, 2021 — Last spring, I became involved with the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project (SHMR), a work of the Jesuit Conference and Saint Louis University. Researchers from SHMR had contacted me with information about my ancestors, who were enslaved by the Jesuits. Over emails and Zoom meetings, they shared bits and pieces of my family’s fragmented past uncovered through their research. It was quite an experience for strangers to tell me about people in my family and recall familiar names from the stories that my grandmother told me. One of the researchers let out a slight gasp, saying, “You look like the lady.” The lady is my great aunt, whose passport was revealed in the research. At this moment, I was even more excited about the project and becoming a part of the community working together on it.
I am a doctoral student studying history, but my involvement in this project pushed me to experience history with a personal intimacy. I had not anticipated the silence and memory it would evoke within my family history. I began to think about the relationship between silence, memory and history. I looked for a tour guide, a map, something or someone that would help me navigate this experience because I did not know how to understand it or what to feel. Thus, I looked to historian Elizabeth Buettner to help me better understand my journey. She argued that “memory is at the heart of our existence” in her work on postcolonial Britain and India. If memory is at the heart of our existence as humans, what does it mean when a large demographic has no historical memory past a specific date?
Before 1870, there were no census records of African Americans in the United States. This absence of records, this silence has concealed the lives of generations of African Americans. When I learned that the Jesuits had enslaved my ancestors, I felt anger, sadness, curiosity, and many other emotions within me, but there was a silver lining. My ancestors’ journey from White Marsh, Maryland, to St. Louis, Missouri, was dated back to the antebellum period. There were records of my family’s history before 1870.
As I spent time in the Jesuit Archives & Research Center with the project researchers, I began to wonder how all of this worked. I forgot about the looming question of memory and existence. My questions became more personal: How will this information affect me? How do memory and silence affect family genealogy? How do I make sense of these fragmented pieces? These questions swirled in my mind as we went over some of the archival documents. I took in everything I could, the parchment paper, the steady stroke of the quill and the photos.
One image, labeled “Brother Pete,” struck me. He was arrested in a still frame, legs crossed, gazing off into another direction. He looked solemn, as if he were thinking about a serious matter. I wondered what it was that captivated his mind. Was my distant relative sad when someone took his photo? Did he yearn for freedom? My historical imagination had activated the photo, bringing it to life—I was looking at my past. I wanted much more from the image, and I wanted it to tell me something about him and what he felt. But such emotions are not recorded. I had to remember that the archives are not equal, and I was fortunate to have this.
The researchers guided me through other documents until another grabbed my attention; it was a ledger document that detailed winter clothes and the amounts of food, bacon, eggs and milk that my ancestors received. My questions became intimate because I wanted a story that I could remember. I reread the document wondering: What did it smell like when she prepared it for her family? Had one of the eggs fallen to the floor and broke? How did they like their eggs? Were the winter clothes enough to keep them warm? These simple questions seemed to lift words off the page, and I could almost feel them—taste them. My family’s fragmented history had taken on a life of its own within my mind. These memories were no longer silent but alive. Within the documents, narratives unfolded across time and space, providing a sense of memory for my family’s history. This experience was remarkable, and my understanding came from within, not from the theories of scholars.
As a first-year doctoral student studying history, the SHMR Project has enlightened my thinking about the relationship between history, memory and silences within archives — and how we memorialize our past or reconcile with it. This project has carved away my idea that the fragmented stories of my family would bring me closer to a tangible truth. Instead, it called me to ask more questions. SHMR’s excellent research brought forth the shadowy figures in my family history, moving them toward the light where I could see them. Through the archives, I caught a glimpse of who my ancestors were, and for that, I am thankful.
This project is the beginning of a critical step towards reconciliation and understanding within our community in St. Louis and beyond. While slavery can never be undone, we must face it and reconcile with our past, which will look different for each individual. Within our current socio-economic and political climate in the United States, we must work together. With a steady rise in police brutality and the growing Black Lives Matter movement, the SHMR Project and others alike are the proactive steps we should be taking as a community. This is a project of healing.
Alison McCann was born and raised in St. Louis and deeply influenced by her mother, grandmother and aunt. As educators, they instilled in McCann the belief that a good education can take you farther than money. McCann is now a first-year doctoral student in United States history, focusing on the Black experience in the United States. Through her research, she hopes to bring to light some of the shadow figures in history, those who don’t leave traces or records and flee the archive—those who are unidentified.