From enslavement to reclamation: The history of Dawson’s Row

How a unique space’s purpose has shifted, evolved alongside the University

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Members of the University community note the power of the transfiguration of Dawson's Row, as what once represented enslavement now represents emancipation

Charlotte Cooney | Cavalier Daily

In 1949, Dr. Luther Porter Jackson, a history professor at Virginia State and a scholar of African American Studies, delivered a paper called “Virginia and Civil Rights.” He was one of the first black scholars to present a paper at a conference at the University, and was also one of the early advocates for black voting rights and for black students in higher education institutions. When the Black Student Alliance called for the creation of an office of minority affairs in 1975, two of the three buildings in Dawson’s Row were named after him. 

Situated behind Bryan Hall, between New Cabell Hall and Halsey Hall, sits a quartet of buildings known as Dawson’s Row. These buildings house the Office of African American Affairs in Dawson’s Row #4, the W.E.B. Du Bois Tutorial Center in #2, the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center in #3 and offices for the English department in #1. The buildings were named after Martin Dawson, an Albemarle magistrate and one of the first school commissioners in the county, who donated the land to the University in his will in 1835. Originally, Dawson’s Row was a series of student dormitories until their demolition between 1931 and 1953.

Although three out of the four buildings have become the centers of black life on Grounds, oral tradition suggests that the space’s history has its foundations in slavery. In “The Key to the Door,” a book of essays by early African-African students at the University, History Prof. Ervin Jordan wrote, “perhaps the foremost historical irony of the [Office of African American Affairs] is its location in an area that once consisted of slave quarters.” 

History of Dawson’s Row

Dawson’s Row #4 was the first building constructed as a parsonage in 1855. The idea for the parsonage came from General John Hartwell Cocke, a member of the Board of Visitors in 1850. The first building on Grounds created for religious purposes was owned by the University but maintained by the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which wanted to increase the presence of religious influences in student life. According to documents given to The Cavalier Daily by the OAAA, the space is “one of a handful of antebellum, post-Jefferson buildings to survive on the grounds of the University.” 

Michael Mason, an assistant dean in the Office of African-American Affairs and director of the Luther Porter Jackson Black Cultural Center, said the Jeffersonian style of the buildings give the space a residential feel. 

“If you were to come to Dawson’s row and look at the architectural design [of] the buildings surrounding Dawson’s row, you would notice that many of the buildings have the very consistent Jeffersonian style, Jeffersonian architecture with the pillars ...  the red brick and the cobblestone,” he said. “When you look at Dawson’s Row obviously it’s quite residential, and [it gives an] interesting feel to the space.”

While its date of construction remains unknown, Dawson’s Row #3, the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center, is suspected to have been the domicile for enslaved laborers at the University. 

According to the historical documents, “University lore identifies the building as a slave quarter, possible for the Parsonage next door, or as an overseer’s cottage for James Monroe’s plantation. Neither of these assertions has been confirmed. Its situation and architectural character suggest that it did function as some sort of domestic service building related to the parsonage.” 

The building also served as faculty residences and dormitories in the 1950s until it was renamed after Jackson in 1977. 

Mason said there was a connection between the Dawson’s Row #4 and #3 in that the occupants of #3 were domestic support to the parsonage. 

“The main idea is that the main house, the administrative house of OAAA was a parsonage, and the houses in the area were in relation to the parsonage,” he said. “This particular building, the black cultural center was suspected to be a slave domicile and those enslaved people were domestic support [to] the parsonage, which changed occupants over the course of the time that it was here.”

Dawson’s Row #2, the W.E.B. Du Bois Tutorial Center, was built at some point after 1891 but does not appear on a map until 1907 where identified as “Dawson’s College.” On a 1909 map, the building was named “Green,” and in 1976, OAAA began using the space. Dawson’s Row #1 was built in 1931. According to Mason, Dawson’s Row #1 and #2 were occasionally guest residences or class space. 

A Home for Black Students 

The University has a contentious past with slavery and its relationship with the black community. Dean of OAAA Maurice Apprey said the black experience at the University could be categorized into four stages. The first is when the University didn’t allow black students to enroll. 

“The state of Virginia paid African Americans’ tuition to go to Harvard, Columbia, Howard … wherever they were qualified to go, rather than educate them here,” Apprey said. “[The University] wanted to preserve the idea that this university was formed to create future leaders of the nation, translation white males.” 

The second stage occured when the professional schools such as the Medical School, the Law School, Curry and the Engineering School, allowed a few black students to enroll. The first black student to enroll in the College was Leroy Willis in 1960. 

Stage three started when “six [students] went to the doorstep of President Hereford and demanded that he leave his all white membership of Farmington Country Club and create an Office of African American Affairs for black students to give them a home away from home,” Apprey said.  

Apprey says the fourth stage was the creation of a physical space for African American students. One of the ways that OAAA creates this environment for black students is through strategic programming such as the Peer Advisor Program and GradSTAR, an initiative that focuses on academic success and leadership development. 

Between the three buildings, there are study areas, conference spaces, a computer lab and a library. OAAA is also involved with peer counseling service Project RISE, black publication “Orpheé Noir,” the Black Male Initiative and Black College Women — programs which unite black students across Grounds.

In his time as director of the Black Cultural Center, Mason saw that student presence in the space was usually linked to a dean. If a dean was not present, neither were the students.

He said a central part of his tenure was to transform Dawson’s Row into a welcoming place for all students.  

“One of the things I wanted to do was immediately change that perception such that all people who identify as part of the African Diaspora and even broader than that — the entire University —  could find their way into the Black Cultural Center and use the space if they were looking for what could be described as a safe space or a home base of sorts,” he said.

Fourth-year College student Myliyah Hanna said OAAA’s presence made her feel welcome at the University.

“OAAA helped me get involved in the Black community by just establishing a presence here,” she said. “Even before I accepted my offer, the Black students here made me feel really welcome.”

Third-year College student Carly Mulinda said during her first year, she used the space to meet other black students.

Mason also noted his efforts in making Dawson’s Row a destination instead of a pass-through. Aside from programming, Mason worked with Pat Lampkin,Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer, to open the Cultural Center after-hours and on Sundays. 

“[The new hours] extend the buildings availability to students so they can have a space to commune or be a part of the area of Dawson’s Row,” he said. “It gives students a reason or at least the opportunity to come here if they’re looking for a quiet space —[although] homes are not always quiet but they are always welcoming.”

Mason said he thinks that the popularity of the space for black students comes from a need of a space removed from the stress of University life. 

“I think students broadly need an oasis — [a] space away from stress, competition, anxiety, socially engineered constructs that are meant to sort of box people in,” he said. “I think people need safe spaces. For black students, for many students — it’s actually used by mixed ethnicities but primarily black students— definitely can identify Dawson’s Row as one of those spaces where they’re able to come in and not have to worry about the cultural shifting that has to take place for them to be successful in predominantly white spaces.”

Hanna also said participating in OAAA’s programs as a peer advisee and editor-in-chief of “Orpheé Noir” is important to her. 

“I participated in these things because it's important to me to be involved with the Black community outside of just attending probates or events like that,” she said. “I think it's important to help uplift incoming students and underclassmen.”

The Future of Dawson’s Row

Dawson’s Row is currently in the process of expanding their space in order to create improvements. Mason, who has been involved in the expansion process, says the redesign will change the way students experience the space. He also noted the team in charge of the redesign engaged with about 12 students and the School of Architecture to see how to leverage architectural history to rewrite the history of the spaces. The expansion is slated to be completed in three to five years. 

The core of the change will be adding function to outdoor spaces. Mason also said since the buildings are protected spaces through UNESCO, there is very little one can do to alter them.

As parts of Dawson’s Row are suspected to have been slave quarters, Mason says the future plans would connect Dawson’s Row #3 and #4 with a covered terrace — spaces that were supposed to be separate. 

“From my perspective, it was never meant to be a connected space,” he said. “There is an interesting separation between Dawson’s 4 and Dawson’s 3. One of the things were intent on doing with these Grounds for Improvement Proposal was to leverage architecture to connect the buildings in a way that history suggests they weren’t meant to be.”

Mason also sees some irony in the the location of OAAA in Dawson’s Row. 

“But there is an interesting wondering about the relationship between being located on this side of campus — I do think it was Canada, New Canada where the enslaved laborers dwelled, lived and worked on behalf of the University,” he said. “I do think it’s interesting that these four buildings that have been preserved an excess of 150 years …  were the buildings that were selected.”

Despite the history of Dawson’s Row, he also notes the power of the transfiguration of function of the spaces and the gratitude he feels while in the buildings. He said the space empowers students to be successful and engage with the larger University community. 

“I feel very grateful that something that so fundamentally represents and represented the enslavement is now wholly used for emancipation which I think is an amazing difference,” he said. “I recognize the tension between what this represented and what is is now. From my perspective I’m thinking about the power of reorienting ourselves to the potential in history rather than the limitations of history.”

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