The Unveiled Value of Stolen Labor that Built St. Louis University

The Unveiled Value of Stolen Labor that Built St. Louis University


Descendants and supporters called on University to disgorge assets; experts estimate value of slave labor that built St. Louis university is between $361 million and $70+ billion.

“It’s always the right time to do what is right.”

FEBRUARY 8, 2024 (ST. LOUIS, MO) — Today, in an historic gathering at the St. Louis University (SLU), descendants of the enslaved individuals who built SLU unveiled the value of wealth acquired from slave labor stolen by the University is estimated to be worth $361 million to $70+ billion. The event marked the first time that the value of slave labor that built a U.S. university was calculated and unveiled, and included calls on the university to disgorge ill-gotten gains and make good on promises of justice and accountability.

The gathering of nearly 200 people followed the delivery of a letter by lead counsel for the descendants, Areva Martin, to SLU’s President Fred Pestello, recounting the University’s fraught history of owning and selling slaves for the purpose of building SLU. In her letter, Ms. Martin explained that while SLU has taken steps to recognize and memorialize its history through the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project (SHMRP), the University has, thus far, failed to conduct a valuation of the theft and return the stolen wealth.

A number of universities, such as Brown, Yale and Harvard, have been investigating their relationship with slavery, however no university built by slave labor in the United States has calculated the value of the slave labor used to build their institutions or the wealth accumulated as a result.

“While St. Louis University’s acknowledgement of its history has been a welcome demonstration of forthrightness, acknowledgements do not make my clients whole,” said Areva Martin, lead attorney and civil rights activist. “Today, we stood on hallowed ground, shoulder-to-shoulder with descendants of the enslaved, community partners, leading economists, and State Sen. Karla May to call on St. Louis University to make good on its commitment to right the wrongs of the past. I look forward to working with university leadership to come up with a plan to compensate the descendants for what they are rightfully owed.”

State Sen. Karla May (D-04), an alumnus of the University, delivered remarks at the event: “The truth we acknowledged today, is this St. Louis University was constructed by African Americans who were never compensated for their work. Colleagues around the country, such as Georgetown University, have taken steps to right the wrongs of their history. The opportunity presented today is precious. Today is the first step in righcng this wrong. And it is a chance for SLU to begin reconciling with their own pasts, and with the descendants of the enslaved African Americans who laid the bricks we walk on today. My word of advice, as a state senator, a businesswoman, and an alumnus of this university, is to never wait too long to right a wrong.”

The estimated value of stolen wealth unveiled at the event – between $361 million and $70+ billion – is based on a comprehensive assessment by leading experts. “This is a conservative estimate of 70 slaves whose labor and skills were pillaged and stolen to build St. Louis University. The wealth accumulated through their stolen labor is substantial, and it is past time for the University to settle its debt,” said Dr. Thomas Craemer, leading expert in Public Policy and an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut.

Economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux expounded on Dr. Craemer’s remarks: “St. Louis University was built on the backs of slaves who were never compensated for their labor,” said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, highly regarded labor expert. “The amounts that we’re talking about start at $361 million and go up to $70 billion depending on the interest rate – 3% on the low end and 6% on the high end. And this is just wages. It does not account for the other things that occurred during enslavement, like pain and suffering, rapes, and bodily mutilation. To this day, the University continues to benefit from this stolen labor, and it is time for the descendants of the enslaved to finally be compensated accordingly.”

The briefing concluded with remarks from two descendants: “I am a descendant and I want my ancestor to bear witness. We took the step to say we want you to be honored, we want to be acknowledged, we’re not asking for a handout. We are asking for a debt to be paid. We have engaged with St. Louis University, and we waited patiently, we came with a spirit of collaboration, a spirit of partnership, and say you have an opportunity to be greater. SLU built a $17 million residential facility for the Jesuit faculty on this very campus, benefitting from their historical connections. Now we, the descendants of enslaved, demand that same support and acknowledgement,” said Robin Proudie, descendant of Henrietta Mills Chauvin.

“Some of us know the history better than others, we have to still teach it. We were enslaved in the cities. We built the cities. It’s been a long, hard road. We can get our restorative, commemorative, and reparative justice done, but that can only happen if everybody is involved.” added Safiyah Cha-van, another descendant of Ms. Mills Chauvin.

Ms. Martin’s letter also noted that religious and academic institutions around the country have begun good faith efforts to disgorge ill-gotten gains from forced slave labor and called on the leadership of SLU to join its peers in taking such action. Just this week, the letter noted, Loyola University Maryland presented an extensive report detailing how the school benefitted from the slave trade – and laying out comprehensive recommendations for a path forward that includes restitution.

For more information and to speak with a descendant or attorney Areva Martin, please contact Bari Golin-Blaugrund at


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