Panel discusses acknowledgement, understanding of slavery’s history at U.Va.

Faculty supports departmental status for Carter G. Woodson Institute

The Iota Beta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha held a panel Thursday to discuss slavery and admissions at the University.

The panel included Prof. Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute; Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University; Prof. Kirt von Daacke, co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery; Associate Dean of Admissions Valerie Gregory; and Senior Admissions Counselor Christian West.

The panel addressed the need for greater acknowledgement and understanding of the University’s slave history.

“When you’re over at the Rotunda, you step right over [the enslaved laborer memorial]. You don’t even notice it,” Martin said.

The University has joined almost 20 universities forming commissions to address their histories of slavery, von Daacke said.

“We’re driving other schools to do this,” von Daacke said. “Slavery is not U.Va.’s problem. Slavery is America’s problem.”

Gregory discussed the Office of Admissions’ outreach efforts to support underrepresented groups when applying to college and provide them with the information they need to successfully navigate the process.

“I was floored by the information, particularly that underrepresented students and families don’t [have it],” Gregory said. “Information is power. If I don’t have it, what about the person in the dining hall or cleaning the floors? They don’t have it either.”

A primary objective of the outreach efforts is to increase the yield rate among accepted underrepresented high school students.

“We were also concerned about whether this was a welcoming place,” Gregory said. “There are lots of perceptions and assumptions about what life is like here as an African-American student. We still combat a lot of those myths.”

McDowell said the Carter G. Woodson Institute received a unanimous vote by the faculty of the College to transition from a program to a department Thursday.

She addressed the difficulty in adding a slavery course to the general requirements for students.

“[When] we decide to require a course, we are in effect stating implicitly a philosophy,” McDowell said. “We are implicitly indicating what we value. What we value is what we require.”

McDowell expressed concern toward the emphasis on replacing symbols of racism and slavery.

“I think the legacies of slavery are profound and they are traceable,” McDowell said. “And I think in some instances to focus on slavery provides institutions some alibis … and takes the focus away from the reverberations of slavery.”

McDowell emphasized what she said is a need for substantive action over cosmetic changes, citing Georgetown University’s decision to give slave descendents preferential admission as lacking impact.

“We really do need to understand that removing [statues] or changing the names of racists on buildings is just symbolic,” McDowell said. “Symbol has its place, but we have to link symbol to substance. You can take a name from a building, but the structures that have become entrenched in time will remain.”

The panel discussed the ways in which students can be involved, including volunteering at the Outreach Office in the Office of Admissions and taking advantage of available courses taught by a diverse faculty.

“You need to take the classes, beyond first year,” McDowell said. “When you protest, when you agitate, when you send letters, you will be more likely to be heard if you are taking advantage of what you already have.”

Jacob Uskavitch, fourth-year College student and president of the University chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, moderated the panel.

“So our fraternity was looking at the type of events we wanted to put on this semester, and we saw a news article that Georgetown University was about to give preferential status to descendants of slaves,” Uskavitch said on why the fraternity held the panel.

Moving forward, Uskavitch said he wants to continue exploring the topic.

“I think from here is continuing this dialogue at the University of Virginia, and how we can acknowledge it as well as give back to descendants of slaves at the University,” Uskavitch said. “Removing Jordan Hall and renaming it Pinn, things like that are good starting points. But where do we go from there in fully recognizing slavery at our school?”

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