U-Guides’ tours vary while addressing Unite the Right, slavery

Prospective students and parents focus on student life over slavery or Unite the Right rally

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Days on the Lawn allows prospective, admitted students to learn more about the University.

Megan Vickery | Cavalier Daily

On Monday afternoon, around 50 recently-admitted prospective students gathered with their parents around a member of the University Guide Service as she prepared them for a Days on the Lawn tour. The group eagerly listened as the guide talked about the architectural history of the historic Lawn and the Academical Village, where eight months prior torch-carrying white nationalists had marched through the University's Grounds.

During the course of the 50-minute tour, the guide shared personal anecdotes about extracurricular activities, academics and studying abroad. However, despite a private question from a parent at the end of the tour, a dialogue on the University’s deep ties to slavery and the events of last August’s deadly Unite the Right rally — where several people were injured and one counter protester was killed —  was largely absent from the discussion. 

Victoria Robertson, a second-year Commerce student and a U-Guide, said she recalls one specific time someone asked about the rally.

“I was tag-teaming a tour with another member of my probationary class and one of the parents actually asked about August 11 and 12 and what we thought about its relationship with the Honor code,” Robertson said. “And so, that’s the most that I’ve ever really seen it brought up [at Days on the Lawn]. We both took turns talking about our perspectives of August 11 and 12 and the stories that we heard on the actual days, what the University did to address the situation, as well as what the more student sentiment of it was … So it was pretty open and candid.” 

On this specific tour, parents and students did not express as much concern about the University’s history with slavery or the Unite the Right rallies, as they did with subjects such as class size, studying abroad and student life. 

“I guess [the University’s history with slavery] is important to be mentioned, but I felt like the tour that we got was good for what I was looking for, at least,” said Helen Belcher, a recently-admitted student from Brookline, Mass.

Belcher was visiting the University with her friend Sophia MacLean and their mothers, all of whom agreed that the tour provided the necessary information for admitted students, even though a discussion of slavery and the events on August 11 and 12 would have been a nice addition. 

“I also did not feel like [the discussion of Aug. 11 and 12]  was an omission,” MacLean’s mother Joanne Liautaud said. “I do not have concerns about my daughter coming to U.Va. I feel like the faculty here, from what I’ve heard both from students and other folks, that it’s a very supportive, liberal community as well so I think there are a lot of people on this campus that really help the discussion which I think is the most important thing.”

Robertson said the U-Guides focused more on discussing the Unite the Right rallies last semester, when the events were still in the public eye. Her personal technique was to bring up posters denouncing hate on Lawn room doors at the start of the tour, then integrate a conversation about Aug. 11 and 12 naturally into the discussion. 

U-Guides have given tours in the recent past that touched on controversial events before the white nationalist rallies of last summer, including the murder of Hannah Graham and the now-retracted Rolling Stone article alleging a gang rape at the University.  

“Our oldest guides, who were giving tours immediately following Rolling Stone and Hannah Graham, were invaluable as we determined how best to address August 11th and 12th on tours,” Mary Boyd Crosier, chair of the University Guide Service and a third-year Engineering student, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Several of them spoke on a panel about their experience and recommendations at our first general body meeting and encouraged addressing the issues directly rather than waiting for questions. By addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ early on, you remove an element of discomfort if a given issue is likely to be on tourists’ minds.” 

Even if U-Guides choose not to incorporate the details of Aug. 11 and 12 into their tours, the University Guides Service ensures guides are still prepared to field questions from worried parents and visitors on the matter. Furthermore, they provide them with useful segways and transitions into the topic, such as the subject of safety, Crosier said. 

“Often, tourists anxious about August 11th and 12th on an admissions tour will express that by asking about campus safety,” Crosier said. “A question about safety provides a good opportunity to explain what happened in August and couple it with an explanation of both administrative efforts to improve student safety and prevent a similar event from occurring, but also to highlight how students have come together to support one another.”

Generally, the University’s complicated past with slavery is only brought up in historic tours. Historic tours cover information on the founding and history of the University and typically last an hour. Each guide is required to dedicate one of the stops on the tour to discussing slavery. However, the way in which guides choose to address this topic is up to them. 

“I don’t touch as much on [Thomas Jefferson]. I think in my case it's more important to give testimonials to the actual slaves who worked at the University and we have access to those stories so I touch on them a little more specifically,” Robertson said. “I have friends who talk a lot about Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting views on slavery in their tours. It’s just up to the individual tour guide.” 

Jefferson, the University’s founder, has come under increased scrutiny as a slave owner after the Unite the Right rally. Last September, activists put tarps over a Jefferson statue north of the Rotunda to protest his ownership of slaves, among other things. On April 13 — the anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday — another Jefferson statue was painted with “Racist + Rapist,” likely for a similar reason.

Since the University Guides Service operates independently from U.Va. admissions, Guides have complete autonomy over the information they choose to include in tours and the ways in which they choose to relay that information. However, the University Guide Service does require guides to undergo extensive training and to incorporate certain big ideas into their stops.  

“When new guides are trained, they read a lot of [slaves’] stories, and also hear firsthand from Kirt von Daacke, one of the co-chairs of the President’s Commission on Slavery, Brandon Dillard, Director of Slavery at Monticello tours, and other experts about how to discuss Jefferson’s complex past,” Crosier said. “New guides also practice their tour stops each week with older guides, who also challenge them to answer difficult questions on topics like Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings that they may be asked on tours.” 

Last August, Dean Gregory Roberts from the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Nicole Eramo, executive director of assessment and planning, attended a University Guide Service general body meeting to offer explanations of the University's response to the Unite the Right rally and advice on how to address the issue during tours. However, none of these suggestions were required to be adopted by the guide service and were meant to serve as guidance. 

“I think a significant challenge looking forward will be ensuring that future guides, starting with the Class of 2022 this fall, feel fully equipped to address August 11th and 12th having not been UVA students at the time,” Crosier said. “We’ve already incorporated August 11th and 12th and the details of the response into our training packet for new members, but more difficult will be to impart the emotional impact the events had (and continues to have) on the student body so that new guides can share that story for years to come.”

Robertson and Crosier also identified a scarcity of information on the University’s history with slavery as another obstacle to incorporating discussions of slavery into tours. Although the University has recently taken greater initiative in acknowledging its past, there is still progress to be made with initiatives such as the President’s Commission on Slavery, which was charged in 2013 with commemorating the University’s historical relationship with enslaved people. The Commission held a symposium in 2017 entitled “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory and the Built Landscape.”

“In regards to interpreting the University's history with slavery, I think our biggest challenge is to continue to press for individual narratives through research and the sharing of said stories,” Crosier said. “Our ultimate priority is to tell a truthful and relevant history of the University, and this cannot be achieved without talking about the history of slavery at UVA.”

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