The Long Shadow of Racism at the University of Virginia: From 1817 to the Charlottesville Riots

A year after white-supremacist violence broke out in the university town, UVA grapples with a centuries-old legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.

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.”

One year ago, white nationalists rallied at the Charlottesville, Virginia, institution. They carried torches as they marched through campus chanting things like “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us.” They marched to the statue of Thomas Jefferson, where they met student counterprotesters. The march to the the statue was symbolic, and it got violent. “They came to claim Thomas Jefferson as theirs,” Kirt von Daacke, a history professor at the university, told me. “At UVA and, I think, in America, we have a mythologized version of [the Founding Fathers] where we’ve sanitized them [of] all the unpleasant things. What we forget is when neo-Nazis marched on our university to claim Thomas Jefferson as theirs,  he is theirs too.”

It’s nearly impossible to read the report without connecting the legacy of racism it paints with the events in Charlottesville last year, which left one person dead and many more injured. For example, the report graphically details an incident in May of 1856, when Noble B. Noland, a white student, yanked a 10-year-old black girl from a boarding house just off campus, savagely beating and kicking her until, crying, she curled up in a ball and passed out. In a parking garage next to the Charlottesville Police Department on August 12 of last year, video shows six men violently kicking and beating DeAndre Harris, a counterprotester at the “Unite the Right” rally.

For the authors of the report, the incident last year showed that despite progress the university has made, it still has a long way to go. “White supremacist violence here in Charlottesville in July and August 2017 brought into sharp relief just how important this work is,” a cover for the report reads. Marcus Martin, the vice president of diversity and equity at the university, and one of the commission co-chairs, put it to me like this: “It all comes full circle in the fact that this institution has had underlying white-supremacist elements to it from its very beginning.”

For those with even a cursory knowledge of U.S. history, many of the details of the report will not come as a surprise. UVA, like many universities, was built on resources generated from enslaved people. Several institutions—Brown University, Harvard University, Georgetown University—have studied their links to chattel slavery and made steps to atone for this history. UVA is on the path toward doing the same. Over the past few years, the university has hosted a string of events aimed at understanding and addressing its legacy of slavery. Since 2013, it has held a symposium on universities and slavery, named buildings after enslaved laborers, and approved the construction of a memorial to them, Martin told me.

But the report acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done. The “racial attitudes that enabled some students here at the University of Virginia to act with inhumanity—that continued through the Jim Crow era,” Martin says. The next step for the university is studying that post-slavery history, and it has formed another commission to pick up where this one left off.

The university, von Daacke told me, is a different place than it was at its founding. It’s a different place than it was during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’50s. The university has different values. It’s committed to creating global citizens and collective learning. But, he adds, “we forget that we may be committed to those things but we’re not that far from the days when those students—[of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s]—were the norm.” After all, he continued, two of the leaders of last year’s rallies, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, were UVA alumni.