Symposium Recap

The Commission’s October event, the Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery symposium, was held in Charlottesville on October 16 and 17, 2014. You can view the schedule of events or view the October 17 panel discussions in their entirety.

The first day of the event involved a reception and documentary film screening at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The commission screened for the first time Unearthed and Understood: Slavery and the University of Virginia, a documentary short by acclaimed filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley. The documentary is now available for viewing here on our website

After the reception and screening, attendees moved a few blocks away to First Baptist Church on West Main Street for a memorial service. First Baptist Church’s pastor Reverend Hodari Hamilton, Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church’s pastor Dr. Alvin Edwards, and Zion Union Baptist Church’s pastor Reverend Lloyd A. Cosby Jr. presided. University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan delivered opening remarks. The keynote speaker for the memorial service was Delegate Delores L. McQuinn (70th district, Virginia House of Delegates).

Shuttle buses transported attendees back to the University of Virginia for the African American gravesite commemoration. Poet Brenda Marie Osbey was commissioned to create a poem for the commemoration.

Deborah McDowell, the Alice Griffin Professor of English and Director of the University’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies opened the commemoration with a reading of Osbey’s poem, “Field Work”.

Attendees then processed with luminary jars into the gravesite for singing, libation, and benediction led by Reverend Almeta Miller. The Mount Zion First African Baptist Church Choir sang gospel as the commemoration came to an end that evening. It was a beautiful and moving ceremony that captured even the attention of first-year students in nearby dorms quite a few wandered over and joined the procession.

October 17’s events were held at the Harrison-Small Special Collections Library auditorium. The first morning panel discussion afforded scholars from other institutions the opportunity to share with attendees their experiences confronting the legacy of slavery at their schools. The second morning panel was devoted to sharing with the public details about slavery and the lives of the enslaved at U.Va.

The University Guide Service then took attendees on a walking tour of the Academical Village before delivering everyone to Lunch on the Lawn. After Lunch, UNC Law’s Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor Alfred L. Brophy delivered the keynote address, “Proslavery Political Theory and Jurisprudence Before the Civil War at the University.” This was a stark reminder that the history we need to uncover much more fully involves the university’s role in developing pro-slavery thought in the antebellum South.

A final afternoon panel was devoted to discussing the challenges inherent in properly memorializing slavery and the enslaved. Stanford history professor and symposium panelist James Campbell reminded us that first we have to get the history right.

The symposium then closed with a facilitated reflection led by George Mason University professor Susan Allen and was followed by a reception at the Fralin Museum of Art where U.Va. history professor John E. Mason introduced the photography exhibit “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument.”

One community member who attended the symposium captured the spirit of the event nicely: “Just keep doing what you’re doing—exploring and exposing the hidden truths about the peculiar institution…your conference was wonderful and your panelists were superb artisans of their craft…Debunking myths and tearing down strongholds of ignorance is the only way that America can pull out of its present ‘funk’ racially. The truth shall set you free eventually.”