The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University released its cumulative in late July, which outlines five years of research into U.Va.’s long record of abusing African-American enslaved laborers and makes suggestions for how the University can seek atonement for its wrongdoings.
The report suggests ways the University can facilitate understanding about its history, including expanding the Cornerstone Summer Institute, a history-based summer program for high schoolers, renovating McGuffey Cottage — a former residence for enslaved laborers — and establishing a research endowment to support the University’s “evolving understanding of its early history.” Additionally, the report recommends the University create a staff position dedicated to outreach and engagement with descendants of the University’s enslaved laborers.
The commission behind the report — established by former University President Teresa Sullivan five years ago — aims to “engender a national conversation about our own past, one that moves beyond campuses and changes general public understandings,” according to the report.
The report was created by committee co-chairs Marcus L. Martin — vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity — and Asst. Dean and History Prof. Kirt von Daacke, as well as several other University staff members, alumni and community members.
The commission reflected on the history of slavery at the University, acknowledging that it is “not a South African truth and reconciliation commission, but [it has] been deeply informed by a similar restorative justice model” that the South African government created at the end of its apartheid — a highly-institutionalized practice of racial segregation — in the 20th century.
The report makes several acknowledgments about the University’s history, referencing the 607 slaves owned by U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson over the course of his life, as well as naming some of the enslaved laborers who were involved in the construction of the University.
In an email to The Cavalier Daily, von Daacke said that even with a background in history, there were several findings made by the commission that spoke powerfully to him.
One such finding, he noted, was that the University tapped into “a highly commodified regional network in renting human beings,” and spent $50,000 over nearly 50 years on “slavery-related costs” — in today’s dollars, that number could be over $37 million.
“UVA quickly became an incubator for southern pro-slavery and white supremacist thought. The informed activist citizens UVA created before 1865 were dedicated in large measure to protecting and expanding slavery and to ensuring that white Americans would not share citizenship with non-whites (and would in fact perpetually rule over them),” von Daacke said.
One section of the report details the violence enslaved laborers endured during their time on University property, noting that “on a daily basis, there were numerous acts of harassment.”
In the wake of these historical atrocities and the mark they have left on the University, the commission was formed to determine how the University can contextualize and memorialize its slaveholding past.
The subsequent investigation was challenging. The research project was massive — there were nearly 100 separate financial ledgers to parse, with dozens of faculty journals and student papers. There were also thousands of pages of letters and diaries from former students or residents of the University. With all that in mind, von Daacke noted, “you begin to get an idea of just how much material had to be sifted through.”
From that research came some major changes to the University’s handling of its past. Among other initiatives, PCSU says it was able to hire a postdoctoral research associate, release “Unearthed and Understood” — a 2014 short documentary film about the committee’s efforts — and get the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers approved by the Board of Visitors. The memorial is scheduled to begin construction in September, and University Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn said the project is in the bidding phase.
The report also lists future directions for the University concerning its history with slavery. Establishing scholarship programs — with the explicit goal of making a “visible commitment to increasing the number of African American students who enroll” — and continuing with community engagement efforts are among those mentioned.
Several other universities have also confronted their slaveholding pasts recently by conducting similar investigations and releasing similar reports. Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the College of William and Mary’s Lemon Project are just a few examples.
The University has been in collaboration with both of these schools as well as over 42 other academic institutions through Universities Studying Slavery, an organization that allows institutions to collaborate in researching and rectifying their slaveholding pasts.
Commission staff member Meghan S. Faulkner, assistant to the vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity for programs and projects, wrote in an email to The Cavalier Daily that she felt pride having been able to take part in the group’s efforts.
“Before the PCSU was formed, there were a total of two research papers — one by a UVA undergraduate and one by a local historian — that had been written on the topic of slavery and the University of Virginia,” she said. “I am proud to have been part of a group that has greatly added to that body of knowledge.”
She also wrote that she was impressed with the way the commission worked within the greater Charlottesville community.
Looking to the future, Faulkner said that she hoped the report would provide insight and guidance for the President's Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, which formed this past February.
“It will certainly help that, as the PCSU recommended, there is a certain level of carryover in membership from the PCSU to the PCUAS, which I believe will build upon the trust that has been built in the local community,” Faulkner said. “That trust will be as important, or perhaps even more important, in the work of the new commission.”
Von Daacke also expressed optimism in regards to the report’s reception and the commission’s work.
“I’m confident that the recommendations will be well-received, as they are organic outcomes of five years of community engagement, listening, dialogue, and learning,” von Daacke said. “I also think that our recommendations are quite consonant with the university’s twenty-first century ethos. Some of those recommendations are already, unsurprisingly, being met.”