The University of Virginia has seen a lot of changes since founder Thomas Jefferson’s time. If ‘ol TJ were still around today, he’d likely be surprised to find computers instead of parchment, cars instead of horses and a student body including women and minorities instead of only white men. Not to mention the fact that he’d be pretty old—264 years old to be exact, as of April 13.
Perhaps some of the most significant progress the University has seen since the 1800s has been in the realm of diversity, and last month the Board of Visitors honored these advances—and Jefferson’s birthday—by issuing a formal apology for the school’s use of slave labor during its inception.
UVA’s apology materialized in the wake of a February resolution passed by the Virginia General Assembly in which legislators expressed “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery. Likeminded apologies have since been issued by North Carolina and Maryland, and the Alabama House and Senate are currently debating two versions of their own resolution.
William B. Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at UVA, commends the courage of state and University leaders in positioning themselves at the forefront of these efforts. “These discussions have been going on for years,” Harvey says. “Virginia’s legislature took the first step, which allowed our own Board to take the initiative and become the first university in the country to pass such a resolution.”
Student reactions have been positive, if cautious.
Stuart Pope, former vice president of administration for UVA’s Black Student Alliance, says the apology is a necessary step in the right direction. “Even though I’m sure a lot of black students would agree that a statement of apology doesn’t necessarily make anyone forget about what happened, it’s a step toward forgiveness, open dialogue and honesty,” he says.
Pope says everyone at the University should be more involved in trying to alleviate residual racial tension. He recalls having racial slurs yelled in his direction from a passing car while walking down Rugby Road with his friends during his first days at UVA. “It wasn’t so much that racism was foreign to us,” he says. “It was more that it was such a regular occurrence. This still happens.”
So is a simple “I’m sorry” too little, too late? Maybe not.
“Would I have liked for it to happen 50 years ago? Absolutely,” says Harvey. “But we have to take the sociopolitical atmosphere for what it is…We’re taking important steps as a state, as a university and as a country to move in the right direction.”
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