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Did Slaves Help Build Mizzou? An Open Letter To The University Of Missouri

February 19, 2008

Dear Students, Faculty, and Administrators at the University of Missouri-Columbia:

I write today as a concerned alumnus (BS, ’94) with an interest in history and social justice.

Over the course of the last two years or so, questioning has increased over the role of slavery in the building of U.S. higher education institutions. In 2006, for instance, Brown University released a report outlining the role of slave profits in financing the institution’s founding in 1764. An outline of those findings is in this Chronicle of Higher Education article from November 2006. The Chronicle called Brown’s report an “act of institutional introspection.” The report took three years to construct, and “was prompted by an advertisement in Brown’s student newspaper arguing against reparations for slavery.” Right-wing higher education critic and gadfly David Horowitz placed the ad.

As far as I can tell, my alma mater has begun no such “institutional introspection.” This past month a descendant of a Mizzou founder and early curator, James S. Rollins—namesake of a campus dormitory—established an endowment fund of $25,000 for Mizzou’s Black Studies program. The descendant, Clay Westfall Mering, felt a reparation was in order. He reflected:

“I had known since I was a child that my ancestor owned slaves, but had never really considered how I might personally address this issue. …In the past year it occurred to me that it would be beneficial to create an endowment in my relative’s name which speaks to the family’s involvement in slavery and expresses regret for that involvement.”

“I knew the use of the money needed to be specified in a way that not only addressed slavery itself, but also acknowledged the effects of slavery that continue to this day. …The fund will support research and study of topics in slavery, race relations, civil rights and black culture. It will help to keep these subjects out in the open, and it is important to recognize their impact on society.”

In reaction to the gift and creation of the “The James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment,” Michael Middleton, Deputy Chancellor, said:

“This is a significant gesture and we are grateful for Mr. Mering’s generosity. …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.”

Reports on last month’s gift are available through the Columbia Tribune, the news site for the “All We Call Mizzou” endowment campaign, and the University of Missouri’s News Bureau.

I agree with Chancellor Middleton’s response, but wonder if more shouldn’t be done—and on a much larger scale.

Evidence seems to suggest that slavery might have played a larger role in the founding of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia. While the official history pages at Mizzou’s website do not mention the slavery, documents at the university’s archives hint that slaves may have helped build Mizzou.

The university’s second president, James Shannon, came to Missouri as a son of the South. An Irish Presbyterian minister, trained in Georgia, and ardent anti-abolitionist, Shannon (1799-1859) became the university’s president after serving for ten years as president of Bacon College in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. He led Mizzou from 1850 to 1856. More biographical information on Shannon is available here. Here’s an excerpt from that page:

“James Shannon was a controversial figure. He held strong religious and political views which often brought him into conflict with others. Shannon’s correspondence reflects his vehement opposition to the Abolition movement, Freemasonry, and the Whig political party. His strongly held and freely expressed beliefs were central to the development of a contentious relationship between Shannon and several members of the University’s Board of Curators. Early in 1856…Shannon resigned” (bold mine).

What was slavery’s role in that resignation? Clues may lie in the archival papers from his presidency. Below are items of interest, copied from the finding aid, in connection to Shannon’s views on slavery:


Series Two


Item 12 – Letter to Brother Burnet about Shannon allegedly prostituting scriptures to uphold slavery, 02/19/1845

Item 13 – Letter to Shannon from D.S. Burnet about Shannon’s involvement in the abolition controversy, 03/03/1845

Item 36 – Notes from President Young’s first speech in favor of emancipation in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, 06/1849


Item 3 – Note: the conditions of the sale of Shannon’s house, lot, and Negroes, 05/18/1850


Item 9 – Report on the “Frankfort Emancipation resolutions” and remarks from members

Item 24 – Essay entitled “Domestic Slavery,” 08/13/1855

Item 25a – Photograph and copy negative of letter from Shannon to Henry A. Wise concerning Shannon’s proslavery pamphlet and Legislature’s decision to prohibit MU President and professors from preaching, 01/07/18


Other records related to slavery exist in papers apart from Shannon’s. Official correspondence from the Board of Curators, from 1839-1868 and also in Mizzou’s archives, suggests ties to slavery (bolds mine):


Series One – Official Correspondence – Early Years: 1839-1868

FF 15 – 1853 – Contract for the construction of an extension to the President’s House; letter regarding Missouri’s entitlement to another township of land for the Seminary…; hire of Moses [Negro slave owned by Mrs. S.E. Lenoir] as janitor, his death and hire of another man, Tony [Negro slave owned by Mrs. S.E. Lenoir].

FF 18 – 1860 – List of elected curators; Curator appointments and oaths; resolutions regarding Tucker and Minor Addresses at Installation of Faculty (10/2/1860); photocopy of Installation Exercises Address by J.W. Tucker and Response by B.B. Minor (1860); instruction of Preparatory Department students in regular college classes; thanks to R.S. Todd for attending to faculty applications; faculty to oversee students conduct and keep them off streets at improper hours; reorganization of the University and faculty; student petition in favor of “Tony” the janitor; proposed amendments to the act organizing the University; election of a new president and faculty; Report of the Committee on Business – changes in by-laws; erection of primary school building; meeting minutes (5/15/1860); establishment of a classical course and an Agricultural and Scientific Department; meeting minutes (7/2/1860); copy of an act to provide for institution and support of State University.


These archival records, from the Board of Curator’s Treasurer’s Office, also from 1839-1896, reveal payments made to Shannon for the service of a slave:

Series One – Early Years, Crisis Years: 1839-1968

FF 6 – 1853-1854 Including payments for chemicals and apparatus; tuition and payment of faculty; bills for advertising; building supplies; itemized bills for construction (including President’s House); insurance on Academic Hall; notice of dividend payment on Capitol Stock of Bank of the State of Missouri; warrants; bills for fencing materials; Promise Note to pay to James Shannon $200 for services of a Negro slave, Tony, as janitor; payment of the Board Secretary and Treasurer; books for Library; loads of wood.


Finally, these general records of memorabilia and postcards (1900-1965) reveal the existence of a slave market in Columbia:


FF 2 – Columbia and Surrounding Areas
Page Four

C: “New Court House and Columns from Old Court House. This corner was the slave market in 1860.”, black and white photograph, n.d.


So why am I addressing this, in open letter fashion, to students, faculty, and staff at the university? Why does this matter?

To be clear, I’m not calling for reparations. Because I don’t know exactly how I feel on the matter of material restitution, I can’t in good conscience build an argument in that direction.

But, as a professional historian with a concern for truth and social justice in the public record, I can with a clear conscience call for “institutional introspection.” It seems to me that this has not been done, as an institution, as of today.

The first step in such a reflective process would be to call for an official and formal inquiry. The team associated with the inquiry could be composed of concerned alums, such as Mr. Mering, as well as archival staff, departmental historians, and members of the Black Studies department. Interested current students should also be invited.

For practical reasons—namely my current residence in Chicago—I cannot be involved. And the point of this piece is not self-promotion: I’m interested in the history of my alma mater.

Let’s get the process started.

Most sincerely yours,

Tim Lacy, Ph.D.
BS, 1994
Scholarship Chair, MUAA Chicago Chapter


PS – I wish I had seen this before writing my post. I feel like a piggy-backer. You’ll have to trust me when I say I had not. – TL

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  1. Michael Nicholsen permalink


    Thoughtful post, as always. One question, though it might seem like splitting hairs. If Shannon was a Presbyterian, then is it apt to refer to him as “Irish?” Not to turn this into a big thing about Irish identity, but given that the Ulster Scots (the overwhelming majority of whom were Presbyterian) began surrendering Irish identity in the 1820s and had reconstructed their identity as “Scotch Irish” or “Scots Irish,” a Presbyterian such as Shannon would not construct his identity as Irish. I realize this has little to do with your post, but I hope you might enjoy a slight tangent. The rest of your post speaks for itself, of course.

    -Mike N.


  2. Mike,

    Thanks for coming by, as usual. No tangent is too pedantic for me!

    I used the term “Irish” ~only~ because the biographical link identifies him as a native of Ireland. The link does not provide us with information on how Shannon identified himself. He may very well have both thought of, and referred publicly to, himself as Scots/Scotch Irish. Indeed, he wouldn't want to have people confuse him with those damned Romanists!

    As another aside, it's sad to find more confirmation of Irish/Scots-Irish racism against blacks in the antebellum period.

    – TL


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