It has been nearly five years since the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University was founded by University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan. We have had a busy several years, and our fall 2017 symposium, bringing together five hundred scholars, descendants, public historians, and community activists, was a huge success.
If we needed clearer evidence of the importance of our work here, as well as the work of nearly forty other universities and dozens of historic sites, we doubt one could find it. White supremacist violence here in Charlottesville in July and August 2017 brought into sharp relief just how important this work is. We have worked hard to engender a national conversation about our own past, one that moves beyond campuses and changes general public understandings.
Our own work here at the University of Virginia, although most often met with praise or encouragement to do more and move faster, has been regularly greeted on social media by statements including: “Slavery was bad. Got it. It is over.” “Can UVA please quit dwelling on slavery? Enough already!” “Stop haranguing white students for the sins of their great great great great grandfathers” or studying and acknowledging slavery is “not a priority,” and “tears us part,” we know we still have quite a bit of work to do.
The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University is not a South African truth and reconciliation commission, but we have been deeply informed by a similar restorative justice model. This has meant sustained community engagement for the past several years—workshops, coffees, public presentations, meetings in schools, meetings in churches—all of it framed around listening and bringing the community to the table as partners in our work. The goal all along has been to create the foundations for meaningful dialogue (if not actual dialogue). We learned very quickly that it is a mistake to understand UVA (or any other university) as walled off from the community it is embedded in. Even our planned Memorial to Enslaved Laborers speaks directly to the many publics who shared with us their perspectives. It is all the more powerful because of those conversations.
Our work has also meant strengthening relationships with our many community partners, including, but not limited to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s Highland, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, descendants, and other local preservation groups. We continue to stand on their shoulders as we do our work.
Informed by restorative justice, we have also focused on acknowledgment as a dynamic process—one that has to be done again and again and in different ways—reinscribing this previously hidden history back onto the built landscape, making it visible in multiple formats (signage, interpretive panels, maps, tours, digital media, print), and moving forward with plans for more memorialization and rituals of remembrance that keep the history and meaning alive for future generations.
We still have a lot more work to do here, but all these together now form an important educational tool—acknowledging a fuller past and also educating those who visit any of those spaces and places.
This leads directly to the next important element of our work—Education. We have created an entire curriculum around the theme of slavery and its legacies that connects our students to this past and to the professors from dozens of different disciplines who teach relevant courses. This includes an introductory survey called Slavery and Its Legacies, as well as a capstone seminar, “Unearthing and Understanding.” It also includes a popular summer camp for high school students.
All of those use UVA, Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the surrounding region as the case study for understanding the long history of slavery and its aftermath in the United States. We have worked on all of this because we think it is important, and both students and the community have made it clear that education and acknowledgement go hand in hand. We agree.
Last, as that restorative justice model has suggested to us, while inclusiveness and acknowledgment are important, the commission’s work is not complete until two processes get underway. The first involves encouraging everyone to engage in similar processes and confront their own difficult pasts. Towards that end, we created Universities Studying Slavery in 2015 as a way to encourage schools to engage in this important work and to learn from one another. Two years after the USS consortium started, it now includes well over thirty schools from the United States, Canada, and Scotland.
The second process that must begin is one that involves some sort of reconciliation or repair. We have been actively thinking about what this might look like while watching what other schools have been proposing. We think it is high time that we all begin to map this out. With that goal in mind, we have formed a working group of USS schools and historically black institutions busy brainstorming how we can collectively create systemic repair by leveraging the combined strengths of institutions of higher learning.
Our October 2017 symposium, “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape,” captured the evolution of our thought and practice here at the University of Virginia perfectly. Over the course of nearly four days, we watched everyone seek out people, panels, learning experiences, and ideas that often came from outside traditional professional associations. The impressive program unsurprisingly came about through the same process of collaboration and listening—we could not have brought such a wonderful conference experience together without some amazing partners—The Slave Dwelling Project, Montpelier, Monticello, Highland, and dozens of community supporters who provided input or agreed to participate in our events. (This entry is adapted from Co-Chair Kirt von Daacke’s October 19, 2017, opening remarks for the symposium).