CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Sixty-one universities are meeting at the University of Virginia this week to discuss something they all have in common: slavery.
From big public schools like the University of Mississippi to small private colleges like Washington & Lee, schools across the country are facing increasing pressure to investigate their pasts and address the legacy of slavery on their campuses. But very few have figured out how to make amends with the living descendants of university slaves.
“That’s the explosive question,” said Louis Nelson, an associate dean at UVA.
The University of Virginia is hosting the slavery symposium as part of its bicentennial celebration. In 2013, university President Teresa Sullivan formed a 26-person commission to investigate slavery at the university and make recommendations about what should be done to best address it. Four years later, the commission has confirmed the names of nearly 1,000 slaves who worked at UVA by digging through the school’s archives, and they have appropriated $6 million for a memorial, to be completed by 2019.
Memorials vs. reparations
The memorial, which will be located near the rotunda — the site of the violent white supremacist march in August — is a welcome addition to campus’s red-brick architecture, largely constructed by slaves. But faculty and students worry that the cosmetic change doesn’t go far enough.
Other schools have formed similar research commissions and come to very different conclusions about how to atone for slavery. Some, like the University of Alabama, have made public apologies. Others, like Yale University, have renamed buildings. But most have avoided funding post-emancipation research that may lead to identifying living descendants and wrestling with reparations. Georgetown University is perhaps the most proactive in this regard, but much of the genealogical research has been done by an alum, not the university.
“The university needs to consider legacy status and free tuition.”
Erwin Jordan Jr. is a UVA professor and archivist who has worked at the school for 40 years and still refers to it as the “plantation,” as some in the Charlottesville community do. In addition to a growing list of slave names, Jordan and other archivists on the commission found detailed accounts of slave beatings and other abuses buried in the university’s archives.
Slaves at the gate
Thomas Jefferson, who founded UVA, did not allow students to bring their slaves to the university with them, so every morning students would meet their slaves at the gate to the university and give them orders for the day. Many UVA alums went on to hold high positions in the Confederate army.
“By the 1840s, the university is an incubator of pro-slavery thought,” said Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and professor of history.
Jordan hopes that the school will soon address what it owes living descendants of its slaves now that the commission has unearthed a complete picture of their invaluable contributions to the institution.
“Over time, the only people who pay attention to monuments are pigeons,” he said. “The university needs to consider legacy status and free tuition. If UVA wants to make right, it can ensure members of the African-American community can secure an education at this magnificent university.”
“Changes to landscape are not enough.”
The people at high levels of the university administration are not having conversations about what the university owes descendants, according to Nelson, and the commission’s work is officially finished this year. Faculty and students, however, are having those conversations, and hope that more changes will come.
Black Student Alliance President Wes Gobar would like to see the administration draft new policy to improve pay for university workers, recruit people of color to join the faculty. and provide more scholarships for black students. He said the only students who are learning about the university’s ties to slavery are the students who sign up for those history courses.
“It should be part of orientation,” he said. “The university has a responsibility to try to change the culture of students while they are here.”
Universities are watching each other closely to see how each school addresses these issues.
“Changes to landscape are not enough,” said von Daacke. “It’s high time for the process of reconciliation. The way you move from suspicion about the big plantation is listening.”