This article appeared as "Remembering the Past" in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School.
About 17 years ago, a committee of faculty members at McDonogh School (MD) put forth a proposal to recognize and honor the enslaved people whose forced labor built John McDonogh’s wealth, which was later used to establish the school. In April 2022 that idea came to life when the school dedicated a new memorial recognizing persons who were enslaved and then freed by the school’s founder John McDonogh.
“The Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed” was created by Oletha DeVane, who was a faculty member for 27 years before retiring in 2020, to make the lives of Black people who were enslaved by John McDonogh visible.” She was commissioned to do the work in June of 2020. The memorial is an oval-shaped outdoor garden space with a low brick wall. At its center sits a sculpture called “Ascend,” which is on a base similar to the platform enslaved people stood on in the slave market in New Orleans. It includes stalks of sugar canes, a crop harvested on McDonogh’s plantations in Louisiana, and two profiles that represent enslaved people: a woman who taught the enslaved on the plantation and later in Liberia and a man who eventually became the first Black ophthalmologist in the United States.
Water cascades over the 95 engraved names of people who were enslaved at McDonogh’s three plantations when he died and the names of 119 enslaved people he released from slavery and sent to Liberia on two ships. “The people whose names are on the wall were laborers, teachers, ministers, healers, farmers, and children who we now know and acknowledge. They were part of the nation’s wealth-building and will no longer be silenced,” DeVane says.
“McDonogh is an institution that remembers, and it is our moral imperative to honor and remember the enslaved people whose labor made our school possible,” Head of School David Farace said at the dedication ceremony. “It is also our responsibility to acknowledge the past and embrace the complex lessons that our history teaches us so that future generations of students have a complete picture. We are committed to telling a more complete narrative of our school and our nation, and the memorial is a place for members of the McDonogh community—now and in the future—to remember and reflect, learn, and question and gain a deeper understanding of this complex period of history.”
The memorial will be used for specific lessons about identity, the history of slavery, the development of the monument itself, and how we choose to remember people. Other schools and groups also will be able to use the monument as a location for educational programs about slavery. “The lessons we developed in preparation for the dedication are ready to be used again and adapted to fit the needs of other future students” at McDonogh and elsewhere, says Kevin Costa, director of innovation and learning. While there are no set plans for use by other schools, Costa says, “We’re eager to share its insight and knowledge with other schools engaged in similar work.”
“The Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed” was dedicated on April 19, 2022, and is a location for educational programs about slavery.
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