Slavery Apology University of Virginia Would Improve Racial Climate, University Official says

Slavery Apology University of Virginia Would Improve Racial Climate, University Official says
By Ronald Roach

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

A University of Virginia administrator says an apology for slavery by the university would help heal the campus, which has been plagued recently by racial harassment incidents and attacks on students. Dr. M. Rick Turner, dean of UVA’s Office of African-American Affairs, brought up the issue of an apology during his annual “State of African-American Affairs” address earlier this month. He said such a move by university officials would help the university continue to address campus-based racial harassment. The university has already convened a President’s Commission on Diversity and Equity.

“I personally think that an apology from the university for the unpunished brutality and bullying of slaves and free Blacks during that awful time in our history at the University of Virginia would be a major step toward improving current race relations,” Turner told a crowded audience at the Thomas Jefferson-designed UVA Rotunda building.

Asked if he envisioned playing a role at UVA similar to that played by Alabama law professor Alfred Brophy, who successfully lobbied that university to issue an apology over its ties to slavery, Turner says he’s not in a position to bring the issue before the faculty senate, as Brophy was able to do at Alabama. 

“This is something the university should deal with. It’s about doing the right thing,” Turner says.

Though he doesn’t have specific plans to raise the slavery apology issue in any particular venue, Turner says he’d like to see a campuswide and statewide debate take place that would prompt the school to issue an apology. He would also like to see students play a role in bringing attention to UVA’s slavery history.

“I’m putting it in the hands of students,” Turner says, and he means it literally. Five students in Turner’s “Sociology of the African-American Community” class are working on a midterm project titled “Should the University Apologize for Slavery?” The students are writing individual papers and will complete a group presentation on the question.

UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood says the administration has not issued a response to Turner, but noted that the university fully expects its faculty members and staff to launch public discussions aimed at airing ideas and analysis. She says it is possible that further slavery apology discussions at UVA might lead to the administration taking a stance on the issue.

Wood says it is too early for the university to respond to Turner’s comment, adding that, to her knowledge, it was the first time a slavery apology had been publicly called for by a member of UVA’s faculty or staff.

In recent years, however, the issue of slavery apologies has loomed large in the nation’s consciousness, as institutions such as Brown University and the University of Alabama have begun to explore their historic ties to the American slave trade. In spring 2004, Alabama issued an apology for its complicity in American slavery after it was discovered that two former slaves who had belonged to the school were buried in unmarked graves on the campus. 

Founded in 1819 by Jefferson, UVA had extensive connections to American slavery, according to historians. Slaves, many of whom had been purchased outright by the school, helped build the campus. Besides the school itself, there are records of slaves being owned by faculty and students. Both students and faculty members owned slaves and used them in Charlottesville, Va., the home of the UVA campus. A university Web site, <www.uvaguides.org/resources/historical/slavery.asp>, offers historical information about Jefferson and UVA’s long connections to slavery.

In his annual speech, Turner highlighted steps the administration has taken to increase overall campus diversity.

“The President’s Commission on Diversity and Equity is the vehicle by which this process is being developed. Although this task force was precipitated by unfortunate racial incidents, nevertheless, many positive things are beginning to happen as a result of this,” Turner said.



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