- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - The descendants of the man dubbed the “father of the University of Missouri” are working to atone for their relative’s slave-holding past.

Clay Mering grew up hearing stories of how his great-grandfather, James Sidney Rollins, promoted and raised money for the state’s flagship university, the Columbia Missourian (http://bit.ly/1ea6t1X) reports. But the former state lawmaker and congressman also was one of Boone County’s largest slaveholders, and the Mering children got a different point of view from their father, a professor who taught classes about African-American history.

In early 2007, Mering was reading the news when he spotted two articles about slavery. Al Sharpton had learned that his ancestor was owned by Strom Thurmond’s ancestor. And the Virginia legislature was considering apologizing for the state’s role in slavery.

“I thought, you know, I’d like to think about some action,” said Mering, a 58-year-old nursing assistant and former architect from Tucson, Ariz.

He decided the best way to do that was to create the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment to draw attention to his ancestor’s ownership of slaves. Mering pledged $25,000. His sister, Ellen Mering, gave $5,000, and another sister chipped in a couple thousand.

But the name they chose didn’t sit well with the university.

“I think it is highly likely that if we were to include your reason for donating your gift in a press release, the media would focus on the fact that the university’s founder at one time owned slaves,” said MU News Bureau Executive Director Mary Jo Banken in an email to Mering.

In a series of emails and phone calls, Clay and Ellen Mering threatened to withdraw the endowment unless it kept its name. Ultimately the university relented.

Five years after the exchange, Banken said she was just doing her job. “Our mission, of course, is to promote positive news stories about the university so we get positive coverage,” she said.

Clay Mering acknowledges that the endowment is not a large one. It raises about $1,500 a year for the Black Studies Department and has funded 24 research projects.

“I don’t know if anything I set up could right the wrong, but I guess the idea is to get people talking,” he said.

Rollins, who also served 16 years as president of the MU Board of Curators, had complex views on slavery. Although 34 slaves toiled on his homestead in Columbia, he once wrote in a letter that he had the “misfortune” of being a slave owner. As a politician, he opposed the spread of slavery into new states and didn’t hesitate to pick the Union side in the Civil War.

“Slavery cannot be defended either upon moral or religious grounds, or upon principles of natural right or political economy,” he once wrote.

Rollins initially voted against the 13th Amendment before supporting it at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln.

Taking it all into account, Rollins‘ great-great-grandchildren have conflicted views of him.

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