How does U.Va. address Thomas Jefferson's complex history?

Respecting Jefferson as the University’s founder, recognizing his history with slavery

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Students encounter representations of the University's founder everyday, whether it be walking past statues modeled after Jefferson or hearing his name mentioned in a class.

Paul Burke | Cavalier Daily

As a man who played an integral role in the founding of the University and the United States, Thomas Jefferson is highly memorialized by students and faculty alike. In recent years, the University community has become more focused on understanding the totality of Jefferson’s life rather than focusing only on its positive aspects. The result is a constant endeavor to respect the University’s founder while also recognizing his flaws.

Remembering Jefferson

While students walk by statues of Jefferson every day, they may not realize there are several organizations on Grounds which pay homage to Jefferson in some way, though not all of them are directly involved in research about his life.

Urban and Environmental Planning Prof. Frank Dukes, founder of University and Community Action for Racial Equity, or UCARE, discussed three different levels of emphasis on Jefferson. The first is a superficial level which uses his name, the second pays more attention to his life’s work and the third involves actively studying him and furthering his legacy through publications.

“Sometimes we do too easily sort of default to naming something after him,” Dukes said. “Maybe it blinds us a little bit to some people, but I don't think it’s stopped the academic pursuit of knowledge.”

Despite the frequent use of Jefferson’s name on a superficial level, Dukes said he does not think Jefferson is overemphasized at the University. In fact, he said some aspects of his life, such as critical analysis of his writings, are underemphasized.

“I think if you were a student here and you wanted to explore Jefferson, it would be very easy to understand the totality of his life and his work, at least to the extent that we’re knowledgeable about that,” Dukes said.

History Prof. Alan Taylor, chair of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, said he agreed that while Jefferson is not overemphasized at the University, he is a complex figure.

Furthermore, some of his values — such as democracy, higher education and separation of church and state — remain relevant to University life today, Taylor said.

“I think almost any time there is a communication from administration there is a quote of Jefferson or a citation of his tradition as something we should be consulting,” Taylor said. “[We cannot consider him] a uniquely good or maligned figure.”

Third-year College student Nicholas Richardson, chair of the University Guide Service, cited the tradition of student self-governance as the most obvious example of Jefferson’s lasting influence on the University.

“The Jeffersonian ideal of decentralized power kind of manifests itself I think in giving the students a lot of agency and autonomy in student groups around Grounds,” Richardson said.

Slavery and the University

Despite abolitionist statements and his advocacy for ending slavery at the time of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime. And while Jefferson designed the University, the majority of its construction and upkeep was done by slaves, from laying the cornerstone in 1817 to ringing the bell in the Rotunda in the mid-19th century and myriad tasks in-between.

University President Teresa Sullivan’s Commission on Slavery and the University was formed to “provide advice and recommendations to the president on the commemoration of the University of Virginia’s historical relationship with slavery and enslaved people,” according to the commission’s website.

While the administration does not explicitly highlight the negative aspects of Jefferson’s life, it is not necessarily their role to do so, Dukes said. Regardless, the University community is now more concerned with learning about the connection between slavery and the University.

“I think, with Jefferson, we have a tendency to put him up on a pedestal,” Taylor said. “Because he was put up on a pedestal for so long and exempted from criticism, now there is a tendency to go in the other direction and throw rocks at this guy on a pedestal.”

In the context of Jefferson’s time, he was not unlike other intellectually-powerful white males, Taylor said.

“On the one hand, you can say he was a man of his time, but that’s not fully an excuse [for] some of the opinions and beliefs he propagated,” Richardson said.

Nonetheless, Taylor praised the work of the commission and a group called Memorialization for Enslaved Laborers and said people should follow their lead to uncover information about Jefferson in his totality.

“I don’t think their purpose is to tear down Jefferson, I think their purpose is to understand the University,” Taylor said

For the time being, Dukes said the commission, UCARE, MEL and several individuals researching who actually built the University are sufficient to recognize the influence slaves had on the University.

“I'm hoping that the University — and I’m including myself in that, so all of us — are willing to have conversations and to explore the history that’s often times uncomfortable for some of us,” Dukes said

Additionally, the University Guide Service has made a conscious effort to discuss slavery, race and gender relations at the University in the past decade, Richardson said.

“[The mentality is] let’s talk about it and then how can we work together as a student body to counteract some of those long-standing prejudices that might be kind of embedded in the University structure,” Richardson said.

What else can be done

While organizations such as UCARE, MEL and the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University are conducting work to make the community more aware of the darker aspects of Jefferson’s life, some believe these organizations must further their work to create change.

Second-year College students Bryanna Miller, Black Student Alliance president, and Wes Gobar, BSA political action advisor, said the work of these organizations is not sufficiently publicized.

“Right now, the University is, in some respects, outsourcing publicity of the work of enslaved laborers to students and faculty,” Gobar said in an email statement. “The president’s commission has undertaken important research, but it is not well publicized or spread to the general population outside of interested parties or academic circles either.”

Miller suggested more widely publicizing the commission’s work as well as working in tandem with MEL.

“The University should work alongside MEL to design and fully fund an adequate memorial that would recognize the contributions of [enslaved laborers],” Miller said in an email statement.

Second-year College student Diana Wilson, chair of MEL, said there is rarely any conversation on Grounds focused on the enslaved laborers who sustained the University and that collaboration among these groups is crucial to educating others about the contradictions in Jefferson's history.

“People don't recognize the fact that even though he proposed the words 'all men are created equal,' he was disingenuous about his ideals," Wilson said in an email statement. "To alleviate this, organizations like MEL, BSA, NAACP, etc., are very important to facilitate conversations about our complex and prosperous history.”

Richardson and Dukes both cited Gibbons dorm — named after a slave family who went on to be intellectual, active members of the community after being freed — as an example of the University recognizing the influence of slaves.

“Naming Gibbons … yes it’s honoring that family, and it’s a tremendous family, but we’re really doing it to make more real our complex history,” Dukes said.

Though there is some disagreement over how much the University needs to do to paint an accurate portrait of Jefferson and his position on and involvement with slavery, positive contributions to this effort are already being undertaken, while work remains to make the University community completely aware of the complexities of Jefferson’s life.

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