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Remembering the Enslaved at the University of Virginia

The first clue that it would not be an ordinary academic conference was where it started: in church.

The University of Virginia’s symposium, Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery, held October 16-17 in Charlottesville, brought together more than 350 registrants including faculty and researchers from across the country. But instead of a panel discussion or keynote speech, it opened with a worship service at First Baptist Church, the home to an African-American congregation with roots dating back to the 19th century.

Later in the evening, I joined scholars and community members for a candlelight ceremony to dedicate a recently discovered graveyard on the university grounds, where anonymous enslaved and free Black citizens were buried.

By design, the symposium set out to restore the identities and lives of enslaved people to a central place in the history of slavery’s role in funding, building, and maintaining college campuses. As many of the symposium’s participants noted, during the last decade cultural awareness of the deep entanglement of 18th and 19th century colleges with slavery has been gradually increasing. This knowledge raises uncomfortable questions about how we and our institutions should acknowledge, and potentially repair, the injustices of the past.

The University of Virginia (UVA) is just beginning to research and commemorate the ways in which it has been shaped by slavery, a process that will continue through its bicentennial in 2017. The symposium’s research topics ranged from the pro-slavery sentiments of 19th century faculty members to the forced use of African-American corpses for anatomical research.  And of course, given the location, there was plenty of pointed commentary about Thomas Jefferson, UVA’s founder.

In planning for the symposium, says Marcus L. Martin, UVA’s Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, there was a conscious effort to seek broad participation. In addition to a National Advisory Board made up of distinguished scholars, a Local Advisory Board was created to plan elements of the program. Community involvement is particularly meaningful in a setting like UVA, where one speaker estimated that as many as 40 percent of the university’s current African-American staff members may be descendants of the enslaved workers who built the campus.

It was the local residents who proposed and organized the church service. During the academic discussions the following day, panelists agreed that it is through such “rituals of remembrance” that institutions keep the research visible and relevant. By invoking the stories, and when possible, the names of the enslaved and free laborers, the symposium organizers made it impossible to forget that real people were involved.

As scholars and administrators, we all face this challenge of bringing research to life. It’s all too easy to turn insular and abstract, losing sight of the identities and experiences that built our institutions and continue to exist outside our walls.

“To live in a university is to participate in a community across time,” stated Stanford professor James T. Campbell during his presentation. UVA’s commemoration activities recognized this obligation by restoring the contributions of enslaved people to prominence.

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