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Education

‘Complex legacy’: A Baltimore County private school considers how to remember those enslaved by its founder

There’s a saying uttered often around the McDonogh School’s historic campus in Owings Mills: “McDonogh remembers.”

The 150-year-old private institution’s buildings and grounds are dotted with tributes — the retired jersey of a student athlete who died too young, the portrait of the first woman teacher, the statue-topped grave of school founder John McDonogh.

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However, there was for years a glaring omission.

On Tuesday, the McDonogh School will unveil its tribute to the 200 men, women and children enslaved by John McDonogh at the time of his death in 1850. Although their labor helped build the wealth that created the school, their contributions have not been widely acknowledged outside of the school’s archives and student art projects.

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The memorial, which includes a sculpture by artist Oletha DeVane and fountain honoring and naming the enslaved people, comes after the Baltimore County school faced pressure in 2020 for continuing to operate under the name of a slaveholder. Leaders said this month they’re resolute in keeping the McDonogh name, but want to better acknowledge the history that comes with it.

The installation raises important questions about how historic institutions remember their ties to the American slave trade. And it coincides with heated debates across the country over how to teach children about the history and impact of slavery.

The idea behind the “Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed” began 17 years ago with a jog around campus. After classes ended for the day, second grade teacher Nancy Lewis moved through the grounds and wondered how to honor the people whose labor made the school possible.

“We always talked about John McDonogh’s largesse,” Lewis said. “My thought was, there is the less-understood appreciation of those who made his largesse possible — and that was his enslaved population.”

McDonogh was born in Baltimore and made his wealth as a slaveholder and real estate investor in New Orleans. Half his estate, valued at the time at more than $2 million, or approximately $75 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, was used to build schools in New Orleans. Half was used to establish near Baltimore a “school farm on an extensive scale for the destitute and the poorest of the poor male children and youth … of all castes of colors,” according to his will.

About 80 of the 200 people he enslaved at the time of his death were eventually freed and placed on a boat bound for the West Coast of Africa, with Liberia as their final destination.

Since then, the McDonogh School’s mission has been re-imagined several times. It operated as a semi-military program and opened to families willing to pay tuition in 1922. The first Black student was admitted in 1959 and the first female student in 1975. These days, about 21% of McDonogh students receive financial aid to attend. And 38% of McDonogh students are children of color.

Shortly after Lewis’ run through campus in 2005, a group of teachers and staff assembled a committee and began the work of “unpacking” McDonogh’s history, Lewis said.

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“There was a range of points of view and questions: ‘Why would we need to do this? How would it reflect on the institution?’” said Lewis, who has since retired but substitute teaches at McDonogh.

School leaders and educators said this month that the memorial is long overdue. They acknowledge the project took nearly two decades to realize, in part, because of the institution’s discomfort with discussing race.

“It wasn’t something everybody was jumping up and down about,” said Rob Young, president of McDonogh’s board of trustees. When school leaders first heard about the idea for a memorial, they asked for more research on John McDonogh and took a long time wrestling with the idea, he said.

In recent years, many colleges and universities have investigated their ties to slavery and promoted a variety of plans for restitution. Georgetown University in Washington announced in 2019 it would aid the descendants of 272 enslaved people who the college sold. George Mason University in Virginia unveiled a memorial this month to the more than 100 people enslaved by its namesake.

As McDonogh leaders watched other institutions address their problematic pasts in 2020, Young said it was like “breathing a sigh of relief.”

“The summer of ‘20 helped us see that we were not the only institutions wrestling with this,” he said. He cited local institutions, including Johns Hopkins University and The Baltimore Sun, that have taken steps to begin to address their historic ties to the slave trade.

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There was additional pressure in 2020 for the McDonogh School to change its name after protesters in New Orleans tore down a statue of John McDonogh and threw it into the Mississippi River. The Sun’s coverage noted at the time that several New Orleans public schools named for McDonogh changed their names in the 1980s and 1990s.

Head of School David Farace announced the end of the school’s annual “Founder’s Day” tradition, which included laying flowers at McDonogh’s grave on campus, in the fall of 2020. He cited the “emotional pain and confusion for our Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni, many of whom have shared their raw feelings and experiences about this tradition with me and others over the past few months.”

The ceremony was renamed “Dedication Day” and emphasizes gratitude for John McDonogh’s bequest and vision for the school, as well as the contributions of the enslaved people and the Indigenous people who once lived on the 800-acre campus.

McDonogh officials in Baltimore are quick to point out that the founder never set foot on campus in his lifetime, although he is buried near the school’s entrance. The remains and the statue of him were moved there in 1945.

Visitors to the McDonogh School website can read about the founder’s history with slavery.

“To understand and reconcile his complicated relationship with slaveholding and philanthropy, it is important to understand the complicated world in which he lived and operated,” the site states. “There is no question, however, that John McDonogh used the labor of enslaved people for half a century to help make his fortune, and planned that his philanthropies would redeem him in the eyes of his God after he died.”

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The school will not change its name, Farace said this month.

“We’ve grappled with that,” he said. “As a school, we are committed to embracing the lessons that John McDonogh’s complex legacy can teach us all.”

Farace said the name of the school does not represent the founder, but rather the thousands and students, parents, faculty and alumni who have been affiliated with it over nearly 150 years.

“We are trying to graduate critical thinkers and ethical leaders. And we believe, as an institution, that embracing and owning and really digging into that full history is appropriate,” Farace said.

The school responded to the conversations of 2020 by moving forward on the memorial’s commission and installation, Young said. It hired local artist and former McDonogh teacher Oletha DeVane to conceptualize and design the memorial, which features a steel sculpture flanked by a wall of names and ages — the youngest is three months old — of the 200 people listed in probate records as John McDonogh’s property.

The memorial cost more $750,000, including site prep, construction and the costs of the artwork. Funds for the project came from private donors and not from the school’s operating budget, according to a spokeswoman.

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DeVane was an early proponent of the memorial and had assigned students over the years to create artistic works about the enslaved people.

DeVane’s sculpture features two silhouettes of a man and woman’s faces perched atop sugar-cane stalks, cast in steel. A sweetgum tree is rooted between the visages, symbolizing both obstacles and healing.

The artist’s primary goal in designing the piece was to invite the viewer to learn more — and to catch the attention of a wide range of ages. The tiniest learners may respond to the way the sweetgum tree’s five-pointed leaves look like stars, while the botanical varietals may lead older students to ask questions about their significance.

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DeVane said she doesn’t have an aversion to the McDonogh name remaining on the school.

“We have too many names that would need to be addressed,” she said of institutions that share names with slaveholders. “I didn’t do this in reaction to John McDonogh. This whole project is about healing. The history is ours, not anybody else’s.”

McDonogh educators have crafted a series of four lesson plans, tailored to give students a developmentally appropriate understanding of the memorial and the history of the 200 enslaved people. The lessons cover how identity is represented and how institutions choose to remember, as well as studies of the memorial and the history of the individuals.

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DeVane watched a crane lower the sculpture last week into the center of the memorial. The shining centerpiece was designed to be viewed from multiple angles, she said. On one side, a viewer can see the polished reflection on the flattened silhouette of steel. The other side of the silhouette is a three-dimensional sculpture revealing the woman’s expression, her features and her braided hair.

“Hopefully, curiosity moves people around the piece,” DeVane said.

The only color in the sculpture can be found on the sweetgum pods, which have an oxidized bronze patina. Their shade is similar to the that of the Statue of Liberty. The spiky spheres would have been an obstacle in the grass for a runaway slave on foot. But the sweetgum tree would have been known to enslaved people for its healing properties, offering an ingredient for a salve to soothe aching wounds.

Not too far from the sculpture, a real sweetgum tree’s prickly pods dotted the lawn around McDonogh’s grave.


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