Historical Context

19th-century-charlottesville Construction on what would become the University of Virginia began in 1817 on an abandoned farm about two miles outside of the hamlet of Charlottesville. Charlottesville is located in the center of the large Albemarle County (over seven hundred square miles of territory), situated in the western Piedmont on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1820, after the state had officially chartered the University (1819), the county remained overwhelmingly rural, with farms and plantations dotting the countryside. At that time, the county was home to only 8,715 white residents. However, Virginia was a slave state, so Albemarle County was also home to over ten thousand slaves and a few hundred free people of color. As the University was being constructed, fifty four percent of the residents of the geographically large county were enslaved people.

In that milieu, it should come as no surprise that enslaved laborers formed a significant portion of the UVA construction workforce. In 1825, when the University admitted its first class of students, enslaved laborers continued to work on construction of the University’s buildings and also represented a significant component of the on-Grounds labor force, cooking food, cleaning rooms and Pavilions, hauling provisions and supplies, chopping wood, and so on. This pattern continued through the Civil War. By 1860, the county was home to nearly fourteen thousand slaves out of a total population of nearly twenty-seven thousand. In that year, more than ten percent of the white population owned slaves, with 254 whites owning ten or more slaves (ten individuals in the county owned between one and two hundred slaves). Well over one hundred slaves lived and worked on Grounds. Thus, slavery and the enslaved themselves remained important elements in the unfolding story of the construction, opening, and development of the University of Virginia from 1817 to 1865.