Out of the Shadows

Published:March 8, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

"University of Virginia" by B. Tanner, 1827 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)

Henry Martin by Rufus W. Holsinger (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)"University of Virginia," detail, B. Tanner, 1827 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)

The University of Virginia community traditionally has shied away from its legacy of slavery. Consider that the go-to piece of scholarship on slavery at UVa—one of the few devoted studies that even exists—was written by an undergraduate! Or take that engraving above, made in 1827 and depicting the Rotunda and Lawn. You have to look really close—see that balcony on the left? Now zoom in and you’ll see (above right) an African American woman holding a white child. That’s slavery at UVa, but it’s also a neat little metaphor for how the university has remembered slavery.

Finally, take the story of Henry Martin (pictured above left), who rang the bell in the Rotunda from 1847 until 1909. Last October a university alumni group placed a plaque on Grounds that reads, in part: “He was beloved by generations of faculty, students, and alumni, and he remembered them all when they returned for visits.”

Martin wasn’t actually a slave when he worked for the university, but he played well the role—both during his lifetime and during ours—of the contented black man. A historian recently told me that shining a spotlight on Martin—as opposed to the hundreds of enslaved men and women who labored at the University of Virginia—only “reinforces the old pro-slavery vision of the loyal slave. It reinforces old stereotypes.”*

So how do we bring slavery out of the shadows at the University of Virginia? One way is to put it on the cover of the university’s alumni magazine. “Unearthing Slavery,” by yours truly, appears in the spring 2013 issue. (Full disclosure: my wife is an editor at the magazine.) I think it is to the magazine’s editors’ great credit that they chose to put this story on the cover—not because I wrote it, but because, frankly, it’s risky. Not everyone in the university community wants to acknowledge this past, and, as for those who do, they are very invested. Should the story fail them, that would be significant. And disappointing. I hope it doesn’t.**

The story considers both the history of slavery at the University of Virginia and then a bit about how the university is working to acknowledge and even commemorate that history. Here’s a taste of the history:

[Professor Maurie] McInnis says that early records of the University indicate that students were more likely to be disciplined for wearing the wrong jacket than for assaulting a slave. As for their sometimes violent behavior: “It helps put into perspective what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia,” she says, referring to Jefferson’s famous observation that the white children of slaveholders, “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” It was for that reason that Jefferson prohibited students from bringing their own slaves on Grounds.

“[Jefferson] hoped he could take 18- to 22-year-olds from that plantation environment and educate them out of being tyrants,” McInnis says. “But he did not anticipate that there was no way to operate the University without slavery. There was no other labor force available.”

And now the memory:

The efforts of various groups around Grounds have focused more attention on issues surrounding slavery, and a growing number of other colleges and universities have seen similar movements. “If we want to just confine ourselves to the history of [slavery in] higher education, then we have to acknowledge the work that other institutions have done: Brown, Emory and many others,” says Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. “So it’s important on that front that we have this discussion. The University of Virginia is a public institution, and one of some standing. Inasmuch as the conversation about slavery is fairly advanced in the circles of higher education, we should be a part of it. Slavery as an institution lasted for hundreds of years and provided the foundations of the economic, the social and the political structures of this country. To the extent to which we avoid talking about that history, we impede our own progress.”

So read the story and comment. I’m interested to know what you think. And if you’re interested in a more in-depth accounting of the history, check out Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on slavery at the University of Virginia.

* To be clear, this is not a comment on whether Martin was actually contented, or to suggest that, if he was, there would be something wrong with that. It is not to pass judgment on him as a person, but only to suggest that it can be convenient for an institution to honor some people and forget others.

** Thank you to Robert Viccellio and the other editors at the magazine. They have been wonderful to work with.

NOTE: This post was revised on March 11, 2013.

IMAGES: University of Virginia by B. Tanner, 1827 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); Henry Martin by Rufus W. Holsinger (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); and detail from the Tanner engraving