Growing up, it was no secret in Clay Westfall Mering's house that his great-great grandfather had been a wealthy slave owner.
In fact, James S. Rollins, who is known today as the "founding father" of the University of Missouri, had as many as 36 slaves on his sprawling plantation.
Mering, 52, who works as an architect in Tucson, Ariz., hadn't thought much about Rollins until he read in the newspaper that the Rev. Al Sharpton's great-grandfather, Conrad Sharpton, was once owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Sen. Strom Thurmond's great-great grandfather.
"That got me thinking about my own ancestry and slavery," says Rollins. "I knew that I needed to do something."
In an effort to come to terms with his great-great grandfather's involvement in slavery, Mering announced that he was donating $25,000 to the University of Missouri's Black studies department for the creation of the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Fund.
The permanently endowed fund, which was finalized late last year, was created to support student and faculty research on topics related to slavery and attendance at conferences and seminars that examine the impact and effects of slavery in the United States.
"This is a significant gesture and we are grateful for Mr. Mering's generosity," says Michael Middleton, who is the deputy chancellor at MU. "It would be wonderful to see a groundswell of similar efforts and contributions come from this. It is a girl 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."
At first, Meting says, the university wanted simply to create a generic title for the endowment fund, but Mering and his family objected, threatening to pull the funds unless administrators agreed to the words slavery and atonement in the title of the endowment.
"I think calling it a slavery atonement fund speaks to the need to atone for ancestors who had slaves and had a lot of slaves," says Mering, who adds that Rollins' father, Anthony Wayne Rollins, also owned about 75 slaves. "In fact, I felt that it needed to be addressed by name and not just addressed euphemistically."
And what might James Rollins--a seasoned Missouri politician who was chiefly responsible for overseeing the creation of the University of Missouri--think about the creation of an endowment for Black studies bearing his name?
"I would like to think that maybe his opinions would have evolved over time," says Mering, whose parents also attended MU. …