McDonogh School on Tuesday held a ceremony to unveil a memorial to honor the men, women, and children enslaved by the school’s founder, John McDonogh.
The Owings Mills school began planning for the memorial nearly two decades ago, when a group of teachers pushed the school to acknowledge its ties to the slave trade.
The “Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed,” designed by artist Oletha DeVane, is an outdoor garden space with a 14-foot, multilayered sculpture titled “Ascend” in the center.
The sculpture features three symbolic elements: a plinth, a pedestal similar to platforms used in slave auctions; sugar cane stalks, because John McDonogh owned sugar and cotton plantations; and a Sweetgum tree, which held an important meaning in enslaved communities.
The sculpture also features profile portraits of a man and a woman near the top to represent those who were enslaved. The profiles depict David McDonogh, who John McDonogh sent to be educated at Lafayette College, and Nancy, a woman listed in John McDonogh’s will without a last name.
In the inside wall of the garden, water cascades over the engraved names of 95 people enslaved on John McDonogh’s plantations and 118 people from two ships – the Mariposa in 1842 and the Rebecca in 1859 – who were released from slavery and placed on a boat to Liberia.
DeVane, who spent 27 years in McDonogh’s art department before retiring in 2020, was present at the ceremony, along with faculty, staff, trustees, and special guests.
“The people whose names are on the wall were laborers, teachers, ministers, healers, farmers, and children who we now know and acknowledge,” DeVane said at the ceremony.
“They were part of the nation’s wealth-building and will no longer be silenced. The memorial represents the collective journey to embrace the contributions and the lives of many individuals—their achievement, resistance, and spiritual resilience came at a high cost in the moral darkness of America,” she said.
In preparation for Tuesday’s dedication ceremony, students engaged in a four-part lesson plan to understand the memorial and the history around it. The lessons explored identity, how we choose to remember, acknowledging enslaved people’s history, and engaging with the memorial.
At the ceremony, students had the opportunity to interact with the memorial and experienced a traditional African drumming performance by Baltimore-based Urban Foli.
The dedication also included a wreath-laying, a libation ritual, and the reading of the enslaved peoples’ names inscribed on the walls of the memorial.
“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,” David Farace, McDonogh’s head of school, said at the ceremony.
In recent years, the school has faced pressure to change its name and cut ties with its slave-owning founder. The pressure peaked in the summer of 2020, when protesters in New Orleans tore down a statue of John McDonogh and threw it into the Mississippi River.
“Understanding and learning from McDonogh School’s history is an important part of our ongoing institution-wide work to ensure our school is an inclusive community—one where everyone has a true sense of belonging,” Farace said.
“As an institution, we firmly believe we have a responsibility to ensure that our ties to slavery inform our work as we arm students with the knowledge and skills to be strong, ethical leaders,” he said.
While the school has said that it will not change its name, it aims to better acknowledge its ties to slavery by educating the community on its history and providing a space for the school to remember and reflect.
This article has been updated.