The University of Virginia’s 2018 report on the institution’s ownership and treatment of enslaved people centuries ago tells the tale of a 10-year-old black girl who was savagely beaten unconscious in 1856 by Noble Noland, a student who deemed her reply to his questions too insolent..
The attack’s prominence in the report is part of an ongoing effort to account for — and atone for — the ways the university encouraged, enabled and profited from slavery.
Violence toward blacks was commonplace at many other U.S. institutions of higher learning in the 19th century, when slavery was baked into the crust of society. Enslaved workers endured beatings, rapes and other inhumane treatment while erecting buildings on campus, providing meals, cleaning rooms and otherwise helping these universities and its students ascend to greatness.
In recent years, Virginia, Harvard and other schools have acknowledged how they used the labor of enslaved blacks, accepted thousands in contributions from plantation owners and upheld the racist systems that falsely validated the mythology of white supremacy and black inferiority.
In 2009, the College of William & Mary, a public university in Virginia, established The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation which includes symposiums, courses and research into the college’s link to slavery. In 2017, Rutgers University in New Jersey renamed buildings on campus after prominent African Americans including Sojourner Truth, who was once enslaved by the family of a Rutgers president. Following its 2018 report, Virginia founded the Universities Studying Slavery consortium of about 40 schools that share resources while researching their own pasts.
In November, Harvard announced a university-wide initiative that would encourage rigorous research into the school’s connections to slavery.
“This emphasis will help us build on efforts through the Office for Inclusion and Belonging and across the schools to ensure that discussion and understanding about our past can help us think differently and move us ever closer to a Harvard where all of us can thrive,” wrote university president Lawrence Bacow in an open letter.
More than monuments
As schools acknowledge their past role in slavery, they also wrestle with the question of reparations.
“There’s an interest in repentance and to provide some type of restitution in repenting for an action,” said the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of multicultural ministries at Virginia Theological Seminary. “In repenting, if some sort of damage has been done, address that.”
To help atone for its past use of slave labor to build parts of its Alexandria, Virginia campus, the seminary recently announced a $1.7 million reparations fund to be used to aid the descendants of those workers and of those who lived in the community during the Jim Crow era when “the seminary participated in that unjust and racist regime,” said Thompson, noting that the campus was home to segregated worship services and its first black student wasn’t admitted until the 1950s. “Because of that history, there’s a need to take the step to do reparations.”
Thompson has begun working with genealogists and historians to identify those who might be eligible for monetary reparations, but other forms of recompense are also being considered, such as scholarships or community development grant funds. “Nothing’s off the table,” he said.
Thompson says he’s received positive feedback about the seminary’s reparations plan, but the topic continues to be controversial.
Some argue that the stain of slavery is fading, which makes reparations moot, but Tamara Lanier disagrees. She believes she is a descendant of Renty and Delia, an enslaved father and his daughter who were photographed naked in the 1850s. A Harvard biologist commissioned the daguerrotype images as part of his efforts to prove that whites were biologically superior to blacks. they are believed to be the earliest photos of enslaved people in the U.S.
More than 150 years later, Harvard continues to use their images. Lanier said Harvard profits from the images and has sued to try to force the university to give them to her. Harvard countered that it uses the images in modern times to emphasize the humanity of Renty and Delia.
“The way in which the university displayed the images of the daguerreotypes,…was designed specifically to call people’s attention to the fact that these (people) were not chattel,” president Bacow told Harvard’s Crimson in April.
Civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump suggests apologetic universities donate funds to struggling historically black colleges and universities – schools that might not have existed if African Americans had been allowed to attend the schools where they worked for free.
Behind the urgency
With such a long history of ignoring their complicated pasts, why are schools addressing their roles in slave culture now?
“The urgency comes from the things that are going on in society,” Thompson said. “Social pressure has come from Ferguson, Trayvon Martin and videos where people can see that what black people have said about their reality is true.”
Social pressures didn’t carry as much weight in the 18th century when that Virginia student, Noland, nearly killed a 10-year-old girl for displaying more agency and self-assertiveness than he felt she had a right to express. He was initially reprimanded and expelled — but only because he had damaged someone else’s property. But an apologetic letter he wrote to the girl’s owner persuaded university leaders to reverse the decision.
Going forward, Thompson hopes his seminary’s example of offering more than an apology will encourage others to follow suit.
“I hope it probably will have influence and effect on things other organizations want to do,” he said. “We’re among the first to step out and do it. Sometimes, just having a precedent … it makes all the difference in the world to encourage others to do the same.”