The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University continues to conduct important research in the University archives as it seeks to reveal much more fully the history of slavery and the lives of the enslaved at the University. Over the next several months, we will be sharing findings, interpreting evidence, and even where possible, sharing images (of people, buildings, and documents) with the public.
Our work, however, does not occur in a vacuum—many others before the PCSU was founded conducted research on this history and on the related legacies of that history here in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. None of these prior efforts were institutionally-directed nor University wide, but they nonetheless did groundbreaking work that paved the way for the 2013 establishment of the commission.
Some of the work discussed below is catalogued in Meghan Saunders Faulkner’s January 2013 compilation, “Slavery at the University of Virginia.”
1993—construction crews discover family cemetery and house site of Catherine “Kitty” Foster, a free woman of color who purchased the property in 1833, on Jefferson Park Avenue just south of the Academical Village.
1997—Local historian Gayle Schulman’s article, “The Gibbons Family: Freedmen,” is published by the Magazine of Albemarle County History (volume 55, 1997, pp. 61-94). The University of Virginia’s newest dormitory, Gibbons House, was named after William and Isabella Gibbons. It is only the second such building we know of at a peer institution of this size that was named after an enslaved laborer or laborers who toiled at the institution. This significant achievement would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Mrs. Schulman to detail the lives of the Gibbonses.
2002—UVA’s Virginia Center for Digital History, in conjunction with the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African and Afro-American Studies, completes the Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South web project. The project focuses on racial segregation laws—the “Jim Crow” law——from the late 1880s until the mid-twentieth century in Charlottesville, Virginia. This important project highlights the powerful legacies of slavery and racial domination in Charlottesville.
2003—Gayle Schulman completes research paper, “Slaves at the University of Virginia,” the first of two papers known to be written on the subject of slavery at the University.
2004—UVA history graduate student and William R. Kenan Fellow Scott Nesbit completes research paper, “The Education of William Gibbons,” which examines the life of William Gibbons as a slave in Albemarle County and at UVA, as an African-American Baptist minister in Charlottesville during the 1860s’ transition from slavery to freedom, and as leader of a large Baptist church in Washington, D.C.
2005—History professor Scot French (then at UVA, now on the commission’s National Advisory Board and a professor at the University of Central Florida) and SHANTI Director Bill Ferster inaugurate the Vinegar Hill: An Experiment in Digital History & Civic Engagement project. The project, so important to our understanding of the legacies of enslavement and racial domination, was built around the question: “Can the thoughtful application of new technologies, informed by archival research and sustained civic engagement, reveal new understandings of urban renewal and its long-term impact on the health and welfare of a community?” Up to the 1960s, Vinegar Hill, a (state-sanctioned) segregated African American neighborhood, represented the heart of the Charlottesville black community. It represented the center of black business and property-owning in Charlottesville. In that decade, however, local authorities declared the neighborhood “blighted” and demolished it under the federally funded Urban Renewal program. The project left a gaping hole in the landscape and produced a profound sense of loss that lingers to this day.
2006—History Distinguished Major Catherine S. Neale completes undergraduate thesis paper, “Slaves, Freedpeople, and the University of Virginia.” This paper expanded upon Schulman’s research.
2006-2007—Rivanna Archaeological Services conducts archaeological investigation in the Pavilion VI garden. It revealed the structural remains of four nineteenth century outbuildings within the garden, at least two of which were living and/or working spaces for enslaved people owned by the residents of Pavilion VI and Hotel D. Ben Ford, Ex Officio member of the commission, is co-owner and one of two principal investigators for Rivanna Archaeological Services, who led the dig. His team has played a vital role in most of the recent archaeological investigations of the old Academical Village (particularly involving the outbuildings where enslaved people lived or worked).
2007—Virginia General Assembly issues statement of regret for the institution of slavery. UVA Board of Visitors, in response, issues statement of regret for using slave labor. That same year, the university installed a small slate memorial honoring the service of both free and enslaved workers during the construction of the university’s original buildings.
2009—University and Community Action for Racial Equality (UCARE) is established with a vision of understanding and remedying the University’s legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination within and outside the University. Frank Dukes, Director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia, becomes UCARE director
2009—UVA Student Council’s Diversity Initiatives Committee, spurred on by its work with UCARE inaugurates campaign calling for appropriate memorialization of the great contributions enslaved people made to the building and maintenance of the university and pushing for the construction of a physical memorial to their lives and labor (https://framingourfuture.wordpress.com/).
2009—As part of the South Lawn Project (construction of Nau and Gibson Halls), the university includes a park commemorating the Foster site. Catherine Foster bought 2 1/8 acres of land adjacent to the University in 1833—the property remained in her family until 1906. The family graveyard included 32 individuals buried there. Foster worked as a laundress and seamstress catering to the University community. In addition, Foster and other free people of color who worked on-Grounds or for the University community often faced violence. For example, in 1834, just over a year after Foster purchased the property, a band of several students rampaged through the neighborhood, banging on her door, overturning flowerpots, and menacing anyone they found out of doors. A neighbor, Mr. Vandergriff, was also menaced by the students—he was able to identify one student, Thomas L. Patterson, who admitted to the crime and was suspended from UVA for two weeks (University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes. Vol. 3-4 (31 May 1834)).
2010—UCARE, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies, and UVA Student Council co-sponsor “The Slave Experience at U.Va.” Panel Discussion Professors Ervin Jordan (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library & PCSU member), Phyllis Leffler (Corcoran Department of History), and Scot French (Corcoran Department of History, now at University of Central Florida and PCSU National Advisory Board member) deliver talks on the experiences of enslaved persons who contributed to the construction of the University, the process of integration, and current research opportunities. This event an be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4xx4yuGwAo (there are several separate videos for each portion of the panel discussion. All are entitled “The Slavery Experience at UVA,” and are separately denoted by Part [1-10] and sometimes principal speaker).
2011—The university holds event commemorating Catherine Foster and the Canada community and dedicating the new park established there as part of the South Lawn Project. The neighborhood just south of the University became known as Canada after the Civil War (http://news.virginia.edu/content/out-shadows-event-commemorate-kitty-foster-and-canada-community).
2011—UVA student group Memorial for Enslaved Laborers (MEL) holds competition for memorial concept and design.
2012—IDEA Fund, an alumni advisory group working with the Office for Diversity and Equity, advocates for and funds the installation of a plaque near the University chapel. This plaque honors the life of Henry Martin, who spent over fifty years at the University of Virginia both as an enslaved worker and a paid employee (http://news.virginia.edu/content/plaque-honors-henry-martin-who-rang-university-s-bell-50-years).
2012—Art history professor Maurie McInnis (now Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and PCSU member) and history professor Kirt von Daacke (Co-Chair of commission) co-found the Jefferson’s University—The Early Life Project, 1819-1870 and team with Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities Director Worthy Martin to create an educational website and archive. It represents a place to encounter what life was like during the first years of the university. Bringing together a trove of personal and administrative documents, as well as archival images of the university and three-dimensional digital renderings, the project-in-progress invites users to discover the people and places of the University’s early years, stretching from its founding in 1819 through the end of the Civil War.
2013—The University Guide Service, in conjunction with the UVA Office of African American Affairs, the Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, publishes the first “Slavery at the University of Virginia” visitor’s guide (thanks to funding from the UVA IDEA Fund and the Margaret Hulvey Wright Trust).
Thus, the President’s Commission, although representing the first University-wide institutional and sustained effort: to investigate the history of slavery at the University, to examine the lives of the enslaved who labored here, to understand the political and social environment in which they lived and worked, and to consider the lasting legacies of that past, nonetheless stands on the foundational work of quite a few scholars and students here. Several of the groups mentioned above were in fact instrumental in convincing the University to establish this commission. As we begin to share details from the archives, we think it appropriate to first tip our collective hats to their fine work. We truly hope we can live up to the high standards their work has set over the past two decades.
Kirt von Daacke, Co-Chair