In the five years since the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University was founded by President Teresa A. Sullivan, the commission has dedicated itself to research, education, and community engagement. If we needed clearer evidence of the urgency of this work, as well as the work of over 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 aimed 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 (UVA), 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 apart.” We know we still have quite a bit of work to do as a university, as a community, and as a nation.
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 in which it is embedded. Even our Memorial to Enslaved Laborers speaks directly to the many members of the public 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, The Slave Dwelling Project, and other local preservation groups. We continue to stand on their shoulders as we do this 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, classes), and moving forward with plans for more memorialization and rituals of remembrance that keep the history and meaning alive for future generations. All of these together now form an important pedagogical tool—acknowledging a fuller past and also educating those who visit any of those spaces and places.
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. As the 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 other institutions to engage in similar processes and confront their own difficult pasts. The second process that must begin is one that involves reconciliation or repair. We have been actively thinking about what this might look like and watching what other colleges and universities have been proposing.
In our 2018 Report to President Teresa A. Sullivan, we first share the findings from the multi-year research project and examine slavery at the University of Virginia. We then detail our acknowledgement, education, and atonement initiatives. We end by offering recommendations for the present and future.