In the 1800s, the University of Virginia rented human beings as a cost-saving measure. These people—mostly men—helped build the institution. Literally. They were mainly put to work constructing buildings on campus. Some of their names are in the university records. Willis, Warner, Gilbert, and so on. It was never a question that renting enslaved people was something that the university would do. After all, several members of the board when the university was founded were “serial renters” of human beings. But the rented laborers weren’t the only enslaved black people on campus. At any given time prior to slavery’s abolition, there were between 125 and 200 enslaved people on campus.
The university recently released a damning report that chronicles the institution’s beginnings, which are deeply and fundamentally tied to slavery. The report—a product of five years of research by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which was established by the institution’s former president Teresa Sullivan—does not mince words. “Slavery, in every way imaginable, was central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school,” the reports says. It flowed from the institution’s founder—Thomas Jefferson—on down. “Even in Jefferson’s own imagining of what the University of Virginia could be, he understood it to be an institution with slavery at its core,” the report says. “He believed that a southern institution was necessary to protect the sons of the South from abolitionist teachings in the North.”