Monday, February 05, 2001

Black history part of white professor's heritage

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dr. C. Walker Gollar thinks he may be related to one of his students, Tomica Chitterson.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        To anyone who wants to know why a white assistant professor of American church history is teaching black theology and black church history, C. Walker Gollar has a heartfelt answer. “African-American history is part of my history. There are slaves in my family,” the Xavier University professor said.

        The revelation is one he frequently talks about.

        “There's something quite healing when I stand up and say, "My ancestors owned slaves.'”

        Dr. Gollar, 39, has cousins descended from his mother's family — the Spaldings and the Lancasters — and their slaves in Central Kentucky.

        Reminders are as fresh as this semester's second-hour class on “God on the Underground Railroad,” a course on the faith of escaping slaves, and the men and women who aided them.

        When he alluded recently to his racially mixed extended family, one of the 31 students, senior Tomica Chitterson, said her family also is from Central Kentucky and “Lancaster is a family name for me.”

        So is Spalding, she added.

        Dr. Gollar may have found another cousin.

        “She's as dark as I am white,” he said. “I'm going to definitely pursue it. I think that would be wonderful.”

  To begin searching your family lineage, Dr. Gollar recommends starting at the Underground Railroad Web site,
        Ms. Chitterson's term project is to trace her family to see whether she and her teacher are related.

        “I walked out of class, thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is so crazy,'” recalled the College Hill woman.

        Not crazy. Possible and perhaps likely. When she told her mother, “I think the professor may be related,” her mother agreed, as did her grandmother and an aunt.

"Never heard stories'

        Dr. Gollar's enthusiasm contrasts with his family's studied silence.

        Growing up in a home and family saturated with a sense of history, “I never heard stories about our connection to slavery. It was the one thing not explored.”

Gollar in class.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        However, when he began doctoral studies in historical theology in 1987 at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, he concluded his family probably owned slaves.

        “I was born an historian. I wanted to know.”

        Church history led him to Catholic history, then to his history.

        Dr. Gollar asked family elders to fill him in, but they refused to talk about it. An uncle finally “came clean” about 1990. He admitted the family owned slaves but insisted it wasn't as bad as history makes it appear.

        Dr. Gollar earned his Ph.D. in 1993 and has been at XU since.

        Dr. Gollar's curiosity — bred in the bone and sharpened by doctoral studies — continues to be nurtured by encounters with black Kentuckians who share his family names and possibly his genes.

        Recently, he was speaking in Northern Kentucky when an elderly black woman from Springfield, Ky., said that “she's descended from the same white man that I am. It's true. Her last name is Spalding.”

        Springfield was a town to which freed Spalding slaves moved.

        In still another encounter, a black Louisville resident identified herself as Mary Spalding, adding, “I'm your cousin.”

        His reaction? “I gave her a big hug. I like meeting my family.”

Home in the "Holy Land'

        The Gollars emigrated from Germany in the late 19th century. However, Dr. Gollar's mother's family were English Catholics who arrived in Maryland by 1640 and reached central Kentucky in 1781.

        There, the Spaldings gave the church two bishops and the co-founder of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who, in turn, created Spalding College in Louisville.

        Spalding plantations were common throughout Marion County, which, with Nelson and Washington counties, was called “Kentucky Holy Land” by Catholic settlers.

        Family ties in the broadest, yet most intimate, sense were reinforced when Dr. Gollar attended Mass at Holy Rosary, a historic black Catholic parish in Springfield.

        “I was kind of introduced as a member of the Spalding family. Many of them are black Spaldings.”

        In addition to family history, Dr. Gollar's scholarly publications include a broader study of slave-owning Catholics in the Bardstown area and Catholic slaves.

        “Catholic complicity with slavery is the same as exploring me. This is our history. We have to be more honest about our pasts.”

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