Confronting U.Va.'s history of slavery

Administration, Charlottesville community consider reparations

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The University named Gibbons Dorm after former slaves who contributed to the Charlottesville community. 

Dan Addison | Cavalier Daily

Colleges and universities across the country are wrestling with the question of how to tell a more inclusive story of their pasts.

In September, for example, Georgetown University announced they will offer preferential admission to the descendants of the 272 slaves sold to benefit the school in the 1800s. The school will also name two buildings to honor those enslaved as well as create a memorial.

The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, who over his lifetime owned over 600 slaves and relied on the labor of enslaved workers for almost five decades. There are some who believe the University has a responsibility to confront its past and make meaningful changes.

More and more attention has been drawn to this issue over the past decade, beginning with the creation of the University and Community Action for Racial Equity in 2007 and the development of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University founded in 2013.

These organizations, among others, are playing an important role in confronting the past of both the University and the City of Charlottesville. However, there continues to be a discussion between the University and the larger community on how broader changes and repairs can be — or if they should be — made.

Discussions of reparations

The term “reparations” has been used for decades to address the relationship between the U.S. government and the descendants of former slaves. Hearing the term often incites a variety of emotions and reactions, not all positive.

“[Reparations are] emotionally charged, and it conjures up in people’s minds the government, whether at the local, state or federal level, handing out money to people,” said John Mason, former vice chair of the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces and an associate history professor at the University.

For both Mason and Frank Dukes, one of the founders of UCARE and a member of the faculty with the Institute for Environmental Negotiations, the term “repair” — rather than “reparations” — is a more accurate representation of the work they are hoping to do. Using the term “repair” better describes the work that is done in the community, which is often more than simply offering money as an apology.

“If you throw out the word ‘reparations’, but use the word ‘repair,’ maybe that’s more understandable for people, if you can say there’s a harm that’s been done, and things have been broken, and they haven’t been fixed yet,” Dukes said.

The term “repair” extends much further than a simple payout to the descendants of those who were enslaved. For Georgetown, offering preferential admissions to the descendants of the enslaved was a form or reparations, or repair. However, PCSU Co-Chair and Assoc. History Prof. Kirt von Daacke said he doesn’t believe preferential admissions is enough of a gesture of repair.

“It’s an incomplete sort of repair if it is only for students who want to come to U.Va. or Georgetown,” von Daacke said. “What are some ways that we can benefit the descendants of American slaves in a more wholesale fashion that isn’t solely about having them come to U.Va. or whatever school it is?”

Repair is a common feature in UCARE discussions, according to Dukes. Part of the work that UCARE does involves a student committee that is made up of members of both the University and Charlottesville communities. The group has worked towards encouraging repair by developing an understanding of the history.

“We use the protocol of truth and understanding, so our history and the meaning of that history, and repair, and then relationship,” Dukes said. “And once you’ve done that, then you can have an authentic relationship with the community.”

Changing the understanding of history as a way of developing repair was part of Mason’s task on the Blue Ribbon Commission. In addition to offering recommendations about Confederate statues, the Commission also offered recommendations on how to tell a more accurate public history of the city.

The commission unanimously voted “to recommend that [City Council] provide financial and planning support for historic resource surveys of African American, Native American and local labor neighborhoods and sites, seeking National Register listing and zoning and design guideline protection, where appropriate,” according to the Commission’s December 2016 report to City Council.

“The [City] Council understood in the telling of our story, African-Americans, working people, women and Native Americans … are largely left out of the way we tell our story in public,” Mason said.

The University and repair

The importance of changing the discourse surrounding public history has not gone unnoticed by organizations at the University. In 2015, the Board of Visitors passed a resolution to name the newest dorm after William and Isabella Gibbons, an enslaved couple that lived at the University. The BOV also passed a resolution in September 2016 to rename Jordan Hall, which was originally named after a pioneer of eugenics. The PCSU approved a design team in fall 2016 which will create a memorial to the enslaved laborers who shaped and built the University.

The naming of buildings and memorials is an important part of changing the public history of an institution, as noted by Mason.

“[History is] of course told in books and scholarly articles, but it’s also told on historical markers and it’s told in our statuary, it’s told in the plaques on buildings and the names that we give to buildings,” Mason said.

As a major part of the Charlottesville community — both economically and physically — the University has a responsibility to serve as a leader of repair in the broader community, according to Mason. The Cornerstone Summer Institute directed especially at local high school students is one way of developing an understanding that could lead to repair in the community.

The program was largely developed by Alison Jawetz, a then-Batten student taking a class taught by Dukes and History Prof. Emerita Phyllis Leffler. Von Daacke led the small camp, which examined the legacies of slavery at the University, as well as throughout the area. It also focused on the racial and economic divides that are still present in the city.

The program is still in its infancy, but von Daacke hopes the program can become something more significant.

“The commission’s work, and by extension, this camp, are informed by a restorative justice model,” von Daacke said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Members of the community understand the significance of the University reaching out beyond its borders. Pastor Alvin Edwards of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church is a member of the PCSU’s Local Advisory Board. Edwards highlighted he was pleased with what the University has done so far.

“It’s opened the process to the community, and one of the things that historically the University has not done is be open to the community,” Edwards said. “President Sullivan has done wonders by opening the door and allowing more participation from citizens of the city of Charlottesville.”

Looking forward

Even with the progress the University has made over the years, there are still some that believe the University needs to be doing more in the community which it impacts.

“If you’re looking at repair, our University was complicit in the the institution of slavery,” Dukes said. “We had some of the foremost thinkers endorsing slavery and then later on eugenics, segregation, white supremacy and so forth … That impacted people in the community for a long time, and you see that impact today.”

For Dukes, one way of evaluating and repairing that impact might be through paying a living wage to those who are working at the University — an idea shared by Mason.

“Because it is such a large employer, it sets the standard for wages and conditions of employment in Charlottesville and the region,” Mason said. “Right now many of the people who work on Grounds do not get a living wage, many of them are not working directly for the University … but the University certainly can ensure decent wages and good conditions are offered to everybody on Grounds.”

Regardless of what actions are taken, it is important that extensive discussions are part of the process. In order for repair to be successful, Duke stressed it cannot just be done through unilateral University actions.

“I think this needs to happen by developing an understanding of the harm that was done, and whether or not that harm still needs repair,” Dukes said. “Maybe there’s some elements that don’t need repair.”

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