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Student-led tours ensure first years learn U.Va.’s history of enslaved laborers

HEEAL, HRL, BRIDGE and Guides collaborated to create a new program to educate first years about the University’s history of slavery and white supremacy

<p>One stop is the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, where students are given the opportunity to learn about its creation and history at the University.&nbsp;</p>

One stop is the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, where students are given the opportunity to learn about its creation and history at the University. 

This year, students in the University Guide Service, Housing and Residence Life, Bringing Race into Dialogue with Group Engagement and History of Enslaved African American Laborers expect members of the Class of 2025 to attend a historical tour and debrief discussion centered around the history of enslaved laborers at the University. 

Nettie Webb, U-Guides community education chair and fourth-year Engineering student, said the tours are to give first-year students an opportunity to learn about the University’s history of white supremacy and enslavement that has been suppressed for many years. 

“[The tours are] contextualizing this University’s history of slavery and white supremacy, but then also having students question what their positionality is on Grounds, like what does that history and context mean for you now as a student in this still-developing era,” Webb said. “So being able to add that context to first years about the University they’re attending and also showing them the opportunity to destroy the legacy of white supremacy here through activism.” 

To ensure all students are able to attend a tour, each residence building was assigned a week-long period during which residents are expected to attend a tour. U-Guides are leading tours at 12:30 p.m. and 6p.m. Monday through Friday and at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

Resident advisors and senior residents plan to ensure all first years attend the tours. All students are expected to attend a tour within a month, and if they do not, they will have a one-on-one conversation with a resident advisor or senior resident. 

Tours began Sept. 11 and continue through Oct. 17. The historical tours take under an hour and each group is capped at 30 students to ensure an engaging and intimate experience. 

“The student engagement has really surprised me,” Webb said. “Looking through RA group chats, students have shared what they’re learning and said they really enjoyed going on the tour because it has given them context of where they go to school.”

During normal historical tours, members of U-Guides create their own tours and choose their own stops. To ensure that all necessary information is presented to members of the Class of 2025, however, the first-year tours have been designed in collaboration between HEAAL and U-Guides for the 15 guides who volunteered to lead the tours. 

“Our tour guides have also said these tours are some of their best experiences they’ve had,” Webb said. “Being able to relay this history and seeing how it impacts first-years and how they think about this University has also been really powerful and not something the group of us who are giving these really thought was going to happen or was possible at this time.”

The tours include information on the history of enslaved laborers at the University, the creation of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and the position of students both on Grounds and within the larger Charlottesville community. Stops include the construction on the Lawn, the gardens which show the narratives of enslaved laborers and the Thomas Jefferson statue on the North side of the Rotunda to discuss the Unite the Right rally and events of Aug. 11 and 12. 

“The tour hits the points and analyzes what slavery looked like and what that violence and resistance of enslaved laborers was and also how that context leads to a structure and landscape of segregation at U.Va. and fulfilling white supremacy,” Webb said. 

Kyndall Walker, third-year Batten student and one of the founding members of HEAAL, added the tour has also been approved and supported by Descents of Enslaved African American Labor Community at U.Va. The group — which was established in 2020 by the descendants of enslaved and free Black individuals who built the University — aims to research, reclaim and honor the the legacies of the enslaved and free Black communities and their descendants.

“We wanted to make sure [the descendants of enslaved laborers] were one, okay with what we were doing, and two, that they had a say in the material that we included in the tour and the subsequent that we debriefed and continued to have conversations about this space,” Walker said. 

Tours are supplemented with a conversation for every residence hall about the history presented. These discussions will be moderated by members of BRIDGE, an organization of students trained to sustain difficult conversations about race. They will begin after most of the tours have been completed in order to give BRIDGE additional time to train moderators. 

As the organization that led the charge to create these tours, HEEAL has been working on this effort for two years. HEEAL is made up of seven BIPOC third-year women who were inspired to increase awareness of the University's history of enslaved laborers. 

The members say their activism at the University began in 2019 after they went on a historical tour led by Architectural History Prof. Louis Nelson. Since then, they worked with Nelson throughout developing the educational program. 

“It really shook us to our core, to be quite honest, that had we not happened to have this opportunity to go on this tour, we never would have known that U.Va. had all of this hidden history, particularly when it comes to the history of enslaved African American laborers,” Walker said. “This is an education issue and we wanted something that was very standardized that we knew every student was going to do and come out of U.Va. having understood.” 

Although HEEAL members said they expect backlash from students who did not want to attend tours or parents who did not think this program should be expected for their children, the only negative feedback they have received so far has been from RAs who did not want to have another thing to force their residents to attend. HEEAL heard these concerns, but said they felt the need for students to receive this education was more important. 

“I’ve been so grateful for the student responses,” Walker said. “On the first tour date we had there were 75 students just from Kellog and that was incredible to hear because I really worried about student engagement and students shrugging it off and thinking this is not important for them but it is. This is about the spaces that we navigate.”

After HEEAL expected negative backlash, they reached out to University President Jim Ryan’s office three months ago to request a statement of support for the program. After following up in August, HEEAL has not received a response from President Ryan himself.

Outside of counseling from professors and initial meetings with administrators such as HRL Associate Dean of Students Andy Petters, this program was built purely by students. 

“One student came up to me yesterday and said ‘I never would have known this. No class would have equipped me with this information if I had not done this,’” Walker said. “I think that is the special type of commentary we are looking for — that eye-opening experience.” 

In the future, HEEAL hopes to expand their organization. In order to leave a legacy at the University, they want to recruit more members who will continue their educational outreach once the seven founders graduate.

HEEAL also hopes to create future tours that incorporate more of the history of student activism at the University. Specifically, they intend to work with the Black Student Alliance to include the organization’s advocacy on Grounds since the 1960s, especially highlighting the list of demands that BSA has asked for since the 1970s. 

“We want to incorporate the history of making space for Black students at U.Va,” said third-year College student and HEEAL member Abena Appiah-Ofori. “We want the students who go on the tour to know that the struggle is still real and they still need to do what they can to support the black community on Grounds and in the broader Charlottesville community. In the end, we want it to be a call to action.”

Correction: A previous version of this article described the historic tour program for first years as "mandatory" and said Housing and Residence Life is enforcing the instruction. In reality, resident advisors and senior resident staff expect their first year residents to attend the tours and meet with those who do not attend the tours on an individual basis. HRL does not officially endorse the tours as a requirement for all incoming students.