​Z Society letters honor stories of underrepresented groups

Society wants conversation to continue on history of slavery, racism, sexism at U.Va.


The letters highlighted the accomplishments and hardships of minority communities on Grounds.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Late Tuesday night the Z Society placed letters in specific locations on Grounds in order to continue the conversation about the history of the University’s founder and culture.

The letters were unique to each location and could be found at the Enslaved Labor Plaque at the Rotunda, Gibbons Dorm, Thornton Hall, Old Cabell Hall, Munford Dorm at the International Residential College, the LGBTQ Center and the Multicultural Student Center. The Z Society’s actions came just days after the University’s various Founder’s Day celebrations commemorated Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

“As we commemorate and respect Thomas Jefferson's life and legacy, so too must we acknowledge Jefferson and the University's history regarding slavery, racism, and sexism,” the Z Society said in a statement to The Cavalier Daily. “The Z Society has designed a journey through the University's history that marks just a few of the important sites that have shaped our community over the past two hundred years. It is our goal to recognize the struggles of students, both past and present, so that we are better informed when facing issues of inequity that persist at the University.”

Each letter had a quotation at the top relating to the letter’s individual story and message. The quoted figures include President Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt — individuals who fought for equality and social justice on a national scale.

The letters highlight the accomplishments and hardships of minority communities on grounds.

“I appreciate their focus on stories –– the ways that real people were mistreated in our University's past or that real people fought for change in our community,” Jack Chellman, a third-year College student and Queer Student Union president, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Three of the locations — the Enslaved Labor Plaque at the Rotunda, Gibbons Dorm and the MSC — are sites of recent efforts at the University to make amends for past injustices and create a more inclusive atmosphere on Grounds. Another project of this nature is currently in the design phase — the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers, which aims to make the history of enslaved labor on Grounds more visible.

“I was happy to see the Multicultural Student Center was among the locations on the list, as a symbol of inclusivity both in physical space and historical recognition at the University,” Catalina Pinto, a fourth-year College student and student director of the MSC, said in an email statement. “I was elated to see the emphasis on student self-governance in getting the Center — I don't know if everyone who walks into the MSC realizes that students advocated for and won that space.”

Despite the apparent progress, some minority groups may still feel unwelcome or uncomfortable on Grounds. Chellman noted the QSU in particular has met off-Grounds for over 40 years “because the University was not safe for queer people when we were founded and still remains a challenging space for many queer students.”

“I'm satisfied with the letters insofar as I think they highlight important spaces on Grounds with historic ties to the University's relationship with minority communities. These letters of course should not be understood as a comprehensive outline of such spaces,” Chellman said. “The LGBTQ Center, for example, remains unacknowledged in these letters, despite its historic connection to the fight for queer safety and inclusion on Grounds.”

Chellman said he hopes the letters encourage new dialogue on Grounds.

It is unclear if the Z Society plans to add more installments to the existing letters or create another exhibition in the future.

Pinto said honoring these spots will allow students to think more critically about the University’s past and how they can affect its future.

“I was happy to see the letters address Founder's Day from a different angle — one that doesn't shy away from the complexity of our University's history,” Pinto said. “I certainly think the letters are a great first step in ‘continuing the conversation.’ I look forward to seeing what else comes out of this initiative.”

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