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Unearthing Slavery at the University of Virginia

Recent discoveries raise new questions about the past

On Oct. 22, 2012, a University of Virginia landscaping crew began clearing topsoil from land just north of the University Cemetery. Founded in 1828, the cemetery provides a final resting place for University presidents, faculty members, prominent alumni and even a Civil War general. Now a planned expansion of the cemetery had the crew, under the supervision of local archaeologists, taking a peek under a thick, two-foot-deep layer of dirt that covered a former plant nursery. An earlier survey had turned up nothing, but this time archaeologists spotted a subtle change in the soil's color and texture, forming what became, after a bit more digging, an unmistakable pattern.

Hallowed Ground: Sixty-seven grave shafts were recently discovered next to the University Cemetery—outlines of many of the graves are visible in this photograph. Archaeologists believe the gravesite likely contains the remains of enslaved and possibly post-Emancipation African Americans.

A Gravesite Commemoration Committee has been formed “to explore alternatives and develop recommendations for appropriately documenting and safeguarding the unrecorded grave shafts and to suggest ways in which the University may memorialize” the site. Cole Geddy
Laid out before them, an irregular checkerboard stamped on the red Virginia clay, was a series of poorly marked and unmarked grave shafts, 67 in all.

"The significant number of grave shafts identified in the burial ground suggests the use by a large population associated with the University," says Benjamin Ford (Grad '97, '98), principal investigator of Rivanna Archaeological Services, which oversaw the dig. "With the exception of students, the largest population of individuals living on Grounds at the University [at the time the graves were believed to have been filled] would have been enslaved African Americans."

Ford also points to a clue found in an 1898 Alumni Bulletin, in which the son of a former University librarian referred to "servants," a common euphemism for "slaves," in his recollection that "in old times, the University servants were buried on the north side of the cemetery, just outside of the wall."

Benjamin Ford, principal investigator at Rivanna Archaeological Services, explores the dig north of the University Cemetery. Cole Geddy

The newly discovered graves will remain undisturbed and the site will be preserved and memorialized by the University. The expansion of the cemetery will now move southward, rather than northward, where the gravesite was found.

These are not the first such discoveries at UVA. In 1993, archaeologists uncovered a dozen graves on what is now the South Lawn; in 2005, they found two more. Scholars linked the site to a free black landowner named Catherine "Kitty" Foster, born sometime in the 1790s, and to a wider community of free blacks who lived in a neighborhood known as Canada. In 2011, UVA president Teresa Sullivan dedicated a small park and memorial to Foster and her fellow free blacks.

Located near the South Lawn, this memorial marks the site of the home of Catherine “Kitty” Foster. Cole Geddy
Unlike on the South Lawn, however, the graves just outside the University Cemetery do not point to one individual or a named community. Instead, the discovery focuses new attention on a group that for years many at the University denied ever even existed: enslaved people on Grounds.

In histories of UVA, enslaved African Americans largely go unnamed and sometimes even unmentioned, and scholars, until recently, have done little to bring them out of the shadows.

The tide has turned in recent years, as the Board of Visitors, students, faculty, staff and alumni have initiated efforts to understand, document and commemorate the slaves who lived and labored at the University of Virginia. Each group is working on answers to a common set of questions: Who were these enslaved men and women who helped build and run the University? What did they do, how were they treated and how should the University treat their legacy?

"You could be a student for four years and never have these uncomfortable realities intrude on your life here," says Frank Dukes (Col '75), a UVA architecture professor and director of University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE).

Grave markers from the recently discovered gravesite north of the University Cemetery. None of the markers showed names or inscriptions. Cole Geddy

Filling a historical void

When Maurie McInnis (Col '88), professor of art history and vice provost for academic affairs, attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, she worked for the University Guide Service. "The standard line then was that Thomas Jefferson would not allow slaves to come with students; therefore, there were no slaves," she says. McInnis graduated in 1988, but later returned to teach art history and for a number of years has lectured, with Kirt von Daacke (Col '97), an associate professor of history, on Jefferson, UVA and slavery. One of her undergraduate students was Catherine S. Neale (Col '06), who wrote what scholars agree is the definitive treatment of slavery at UVA to date.

"Catherine Neale was the first person to go through the archives for information about slavery," McInnis says. "Since then there has not been that much systematic work done. We've been poking around the edges. We still need that top-to-bottom, thorough examination of slavery at UVA."

"I found it incredibly striking that there was not more scholarship about slavery and the University," says Neale. "There was just nothing out there." Like McInnis, she joined the Guide Service. "When I first started, the guides talked a little about slavery. Everybody talks about Henry Martin," she says, referring to the bell ringer who stayed on at the University after the Civil War, dying in 1915. Although born enslaved, Martin likely was freed before being hired by the University. But the tours, Neale says, primarily focused on integration of the University during the 1950s.

Julian Bond, UVA professor emeritus of history and former director of the NAACP, emphasizes that documenting and researching the past is critical to today's University. "What is yesterday makes our today," says Bond. "It sounds trite, but it affects who we are now, how we behave now, what we plan for the future. Having some relatively deep knowledge of the past is essential."

By the time Neale graduated in 2006, the Guides had established a "Slave to Scholar" tour and Neale herself had penned her award-winning thesis, available in the history department library, titled "Slaves, Freedpeople, and the University of Virginia." Along with a much shorter monograph written in 2003 by Albemarle County historian Gayle M. Schulman (Grad '80), it is one of the only scholarly works to focus entirely on slavery at the University. The story these histories tell is complex and painful.

Slavery at the University

The first two slaves at the University worked to clear land that had once been James Monroe's cornfield during the summer of 1817. Then, at the first Board of Visitors meeting, on October 7, 1817, officials authorized the hiring of additional laborers, including slaves, to begin construction of the University. According to Neale, these men hauled timber to construction sites on Grounds, where they cut and nailed it. They also molded and fired bricks and used them to build the University's first buildings and walls. In an effort at cost cutting, most of these slaves at the University were hired from local owners, who were paid a set annual amount per slave and who expected their "property" to be returned reasonably well clothed. This often meant nothing more than providing outer- and underclothing, along with double-soled shoes.

Tradition placed the onus of medical care for hired slaves on the University, but care was sometimes delayed as slave owners and the University argued over who was responsible for the cost. In at least one instance this came at the expense of a sick slave's life, according to research by Ervin Jordan Jr., an associate professor and research archivist in Special Collections who is at work on a book about African Americans at the University.

The University owned outright a handful of slaves. Jefferson himself, in his role as a member of the Board of Visitors, agreed to purchase a slave for $125 in January 1819. By 1830, the University owned four slaves. In 1832, the University purchased a slave named Lewis Commodore for $580, Henry Martin's predecessor as bell ringer. At any given time, however, there were as many as 100 or more slaves working on Grounds.

Once the University was built, the work of slaves transitioned from construction to the day-to-day necessities of students, who were prohibited from bringing their own slaves onto Grounds. Some students who owned slaves brought them to Charlottesville despite the prohibition, hiring them out or housing them elsewhere.

In contrast, faculty were allowed to bring their personal slaves with them to live at the University. Students were, however, attended to by slaves on Grounds; those slaves were owned by the independent hotelkeepers who ran the hotels, or boardinghouses, where students lived.

"There was about one slave for every 20 students," says Ervin Jordan. "They were kept busy during the course of the day."

In 1835, an average slave working in one of the hotels began the day making fires, blacking boots, sweeping floors, making beds and carrying away ashes. On a more periodic basis he did various "deep-cleaning" chores such as whitewashing the fireplace before either bringing in the ice or the wood, depending on the season.

Slaves were often blamed when living conditions at the University deteriorated, as they often did. The historian Philip Alexander Bruce, who published a five-volume history of the University in the early 1920s, referred to "shifty negro servants," "slipshod slave service," and "lazy, untrained slaves," blaming them, among other things, for contributing to deadly outbreaks of disease. Catherine Neale's history includes accounts of other slaves being kicked, beaten or yelled at by students who, in some instances, resented the fact that faculty were allowed to keep slaves on Grounds.

"Typical students came from Southern, slave-owning families," Jordan explains. "When you owned slaves, you had the power of life and death over another human being. These students tended to have what I would call an attitude problem with authority. These students might even have owned more slaves than their professors, and they did not take too kindly to authority."

According to Neale, a group of students beat Lewis Commodore, the enslaved bell ringer, apparently in protest of the school's strict time schedule in 1837. In a rare move, Commodore was asked to testify, and he identified one of his assailants. The following year, two students attacked Fielding, a male slave belonging to Professor Charles Bonnycastle. Fielding received, as described by Bonnycastle, "a severe and inhuman beating" because he had interfered with the students' attempts to disband a group of free blacks. When Bonnycastle intervened "for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered," he too was beaten. In this case, Fielding was not allowed to testify and ultimately the University declined to punish the students. Other instances of abuse were punished; for example, a student who fired a pistol and attacked a slave in 1839 with a knife was expelled.

In 1856, according to faculty minutes cited in Gayle Schulman's history, a student confessed to beating unconscious a slave girl, aged 10 or 11. She had wandered onto Grounds and, after being confronted by the student, had not replied with what he deemed to be appropriate deference. The student told professors "that whenever a servant is insolent to him, he will take upon himself the right of punishing him without the consent of his master." The student said his actions were "not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons." The faculty, after originally recommending expulsion, reconsidered and the student was not punished.

Such a result was fairly typical. McInnis says that early records of the University indicate that students were more likely to be disciplined for wearing the wrong jacket than for assaulting a slave. As for their sometimes violent behavior: "It helps put into perspective what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia," she says, referring to Jefferson's famous observation that the white children of slaveholders, "nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities." It was for that reason that Jefferson prohibited students from bringing their own slaves on Grounds.

"[Jefferson] hoped he could take 18- to 22-year-olds from that plantation environment and educate them out of being tyrants," McInnis says. "But he did not anticipate that there was no way to operate the University without slavery. There was no other labor force available."

Today's University addresses slavery

In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution expressing regret for the state's role in the slave trade, and the Board of Visitors soon followed suit, commending the General Assembly's action and making particular note of its regret for the University's use of slaves.

"If we are to lay claim to the glories of Virginia's past, its proud moments and its contributions to the nation's greater good, we must also acknowledge some painful truths. Slavery was one of those truths," Thomas Farrell (Col '76, Law '79), then rector of the Board of Visitors, wrote in a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial about the BOV's statement. "By doing so, we can begin to address the future with a new sense of clarity, purpose and strength."

For some, the BOV statement was a first step in the process of acknowledging the legacy of slavery and the University's involvement with it. Others felt the BOV resolution would have been more effective with increased publicity and follow-up activity.

Frank Dukes says many in the University community didn't even hear about the resolution. And among those who did, "there was actually more resentment than the sense that this was a good thing. People felt that words without actions are meaningless."

With that in mind, Dukes secured a grant in 2007 from the Andrus Family Fund, whose mission is fostering "just and sustainable change," to conduct interviews on Grounds and around Charlottesville. The project's goal was to determine how the University of Virginia community could best examine and address the history and legacy of slavery and segregation.

"People had different attitudes toward commemoration," Dukes says of those interviewed during his project. "Some found it insulting, a way of substituting for action on issues relating to African Americans, such as the fact that they represent a larger number of low-income workers at UVA. ... So this is what we were hearing. It's important to learn about history and to commemorate, to not forget, but we also have to act."

With an additional grant in 2009, Dukes founded UCARE, which is dedicated to finding ways to understand the University's role in slavery, racial segregation and discrimination, and addressing and repairing the legacy of those harms.

The path to understanding and repair begins with open conversation about topics that have been infrequently discussed among those in the University community.

"There's a need to open up dialogue among different races to make the subject of slavery less taboo for those who want to discuss it," says Ted Jeffries (Col '93), director of Ridley, a scholarship fund for African-American students at UVA. "There's real value in talking about slavery at UVA, because it can be part of a continual healing process and growth as a University community that the Board's statement helped to begin."

Jeffries is not alone in his assessment that more opportunities for conversation are needed at UVA. "I remember seeing some comments on a document that asked graduating seniors to rate their experience at the University of Virginia, and the common concern for many of them was that no one had created a space for them to talk about race," says Julian Bond. "Young people feel this lack of opportunity for real discussion."

Taking action, commemorating the past

The efforts of various groups around Grounds have focused more attention on issues surrounding slavery, and a growing number of other colleges and universities have seen similar movements. "If we want to just confine ourselves to the history of [slavery in] higher education, then we have to acknowledge the work that other institutions have done: Brown, Emory and many others," says Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. "So it's important on that front that we have this discussion. The University of Virginia is a public institution, and one of some standing. Inasmuch as the conversation about slavery is fairly advanced in the circles of higher education, we should be a part of it. Slavery as an institution lasted for hundreds of years and provided the foundations of the economic, the social and the political structures of this country. To the extent to which we avoid talking about that history, we impede our own progress."

Few students at UVA have done more to advance the conversation about slavery than Ishraga Eltahir (Col '11), who arrived in Charlottesville as a student in the autumn of 2006. "Prior to coming to UVA, I did not know the depths of the University's history as it relates to slavery," she says. "I knew UVA was an old school with a great deal of historical significance, but was not aware of the full story or that enslaved laborers were critical to the foundations of the University." She took a course from Dukes and was assigned to research slavery at UVA. From there she interned with UCARE, became involved with Student Council's Diversity Initiatives Committee, and in 2010 helped to found the student group Memorial for Enslaved Laborers (MEL).

After surveying students, MEL resolved that the University required more of a memorial than the small, easily overlooked plaque devoted to the free and enslaved laborers who had built the Rotunda that was installed in March 2007.

This plaque, between Pavilion I and the Rotunda, was installed in 2007.

Eltahir says that her involvement with MEL, on the one hand, "comes from a place of deep love and appreciation for the University of Virginia." On the other hand, "it pains me to see a place that I value so much contradict its love of history by largely ignoring events and individuals of utmost significance to our current existence as an institution and as a community."

Since Eltahir's graduation, MEL has sponsored a design competition for a memorial to UVA slaves and narrowed the submissions to three. In February of this year, the group submitted a final proposal to the University.

A memorial in the Gooch/Dillard Residence Area
"This whole project has encouraged people to think about the ways in which enslaved people have been rendered invisible," says Jared Brown (Col '13), the current chair of MEL, who hopes a memorial might be placed on Central Grounds.

"It's important to have something tangible," says Jordan Jackson (Col '15), a second-year student. "Conversations, symposiums—eventually they all go by the wayside, but the memorial remains. Slaves built this university and they deserve to have something tangible."

Another memorial was dedicated on Central Grounds last year, resulting from the efforts of the IDEA Fund, an alumni group founded a year and a half ago with the goal of providing, in the words of its chair, Tierney Temple Fairchild (Darden '93, Grad '96), "action-oriented leadership and support." (The group's name stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access.) In January 2012, IDEA helped sponsor a celebration of the life of the bell ringer Henry Martin, which included a panel discussion and a service in the Rotunda. Later, a marker in Martin's honor was placed near the University Chapel.

"It was very good, a start," Fairchild says, although some have expressed misgivings about the event. Singling out Martin only "reinforces the old pro-slavery vision of the loyal slave," according to one faculty member who preferred not to be named.

Fairchild says she agrees with some of that criticism, but says the Martin tribute was just the beginning of a broader commemoration process by IDEA. "Our goal was not to say, 'We did this plaque and now we're done.' Henry Martin was one person at one time. He may not have been representative at all. But our efforts led to a report, which is asking, 'How is this story being told?'"

That report, a catalog of all such efforts by the University with regard to slavery, is part of an effort to bring UVA's commemoration of slaves up to the level of what's being done at Monticello and the Smithsonian, says Meghan Saunders Faulkner (Educ '10), an assistant to Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity. "When you go to Monticello, they talk a lot about slavery," Faulkner says. "At UVA, we have only a plaque—a small slate memorial underneath the south entrance of the Rotunda that students walk right over every day and may not be aware they missed it."

Petrina Jackson, head of instruction and outreach at the University of Virginia Library, believes the University is ready to delve deeper into its past. "A lot of alumni and other people see UVA in a particular way and they worry that talking about slavery might tarnish the University," says Jackson, who, with Ervin Jordan, curated a 2012 library exhibit titled Working Without Wages that examined slavery at UVA. "But you can't hide from what happened. The more you uncover the better. I just don't see how you benefit from hiding from that history. In fact, I think it creates more respect for the University to be open about it. It tells people that the University is not so fragile that it can't take on the weight of its own history."