BROWN: Debts to the past
The University must examine and acknowledge its historical ties with slavery
University President Teresa Sullivan recently announced the formation of a commission to investigate the connections between the University and slavery. Her choice to do so is intriguing given there was no significant pressure for Sullivan to shine such a potentially negative spotlight on our school’s history. Not many institutions want to recall the fact their successes can to a significant degree be credited to advantages derived from slavery. But in doing so, Sullivan is demonstrating courage in confronting an issue that schools, states and other institutions all too often choose to ignore. Hopefully her action will start a trend among American universities, especially Southern ones, to be honest with themselves about the role slavery had in their formation and success.
The obvious question surrounding the formation of this commission is why now? And what can be gained from its results? Slavery is one of the most horrific institutions not just of American history but of all time. Our nation as a whole established its economy for centuries on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped people and their descendants, in the process establishing an upper class, from both the North and the South, of people profiting from cultural genocide and dehumanization. Why is this relevant to the University? Because the first students to attend this school were largely from this upper class, their ability to attend the University depended on their wealth derived from slavery, whether directly through slave ownership or indirectly through participation in trade connected to slavery. Because these students and their teachers were attended to by slaves for years, and because our founder, Thomas Jefferson, not only participated in slavery but also articulated a pseudo-scientific justification for it. Slavery is a critical element of our history as a school. We, as students here, are directly benefiting from the institution of slavery through its contributions to the establishment of our school. The least we can do is acknowledge that wrong and honor the lives that were stolen so the University could become the leading institution it is today.
To ignore these facts or call them irrelevant is irresponsible and hypocritical. Anyone who has ever visited Grounds knows how important history and tradition are to our culture and identity. By attempting to bring our full history to light with all its blemishes, Sullivan is providing a challenge for our university to accept these realities, adjust our perceptions of our past and improve our culture accordingly. While we all love to hero-worship Jefferson as the genius he was, isn’t it relevant to a group of aspiring Jeffersons that prejudice and inflexibility can corrupt even the most brilliant minds? Can acknowledging the benefits our predecessors gained from such a twisted system push us to re-examine the institutions we all benefit from today? It’s possible that examining slavery and its role could cause a future business leader to reflect on the human cost of cheap labor, and pursue strategies that treat workers fairly and with dignity. An aspiring politician on Grounds could be inspired to look for populations in our country today whose voices are not being heard and needs are not being met. A student could be pushed to notice all the work janitors, construction crews and dining employees do to improve our lives every day, and decide to join the Living Wage movement as a result. If this commission causes even some minor reflection on our role as a University to confront these sorts of issues in the present, then it is worth every minute and dollar.
Some might not question the purpose of this commission but its timing — when we as a University are dealing with a financial crisis and a multitude of pressing academic and administrative problems, is it smart to devote resources to something so far in the past? I would argue it is in times like these that we most need to look to our history.
Slavery and its role in the University is arguably the biggest stain on our historical reputation. By examining our most glaring error, we have the chance to gain new perspective on what is important in the present. The recent cuts to the AccessUVa financial-aid program have been controversial. Our school began as a refuge for the wealthy, but it has obtained a level of diversity through programs like AccessUVa. Do cuts to AccessUVa affect this progress? If so, how will that change our identity as a school? Can a school without socio-economic diversity serve as an opponent of exploitative institutions? Looking to our past can provide new perspectives on these questions. If examining our past fully and embracing that past as part of our legacy as a University can help us ask those difficult, painful questions, then we should do so. Hopefully we won’t be the only ones.
Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.