In 1936, “Jefferson’s University” so wanted to maintain its segregated self that it implemented a unique admissions policy for dealing with black applicants. Its forward-thinking solution? The best and brightest African American minds were paid to go anywhere but UVA—”anywhere” usually being a blacks-only college, according to a new weekly tour of UVA’s African American history.
Though the University has advanced—racially speaking—by leaps and bounds, its history of slave labor, segregation and racism is a lasting stain. But rather than hiding from the past, students here are taking it on.
“When you think about the University, it’s very easy to forget who gave us all of this,” says Wallace Gundy, one of six students leading a weekly UVA African American history walking tour for students, residents, tourists and area schools. The African American tour began informally six years ago; although, until this semester, it was only available at specific times or by request.
“Had it not been for African Americans, the University would not exist,” says Gundy. “The University is clearly becoming far more diverse, but we still have a long way to go.”
The hour-long program bluntly follows the University’s segregated past, from when the Rotunda and pavilions were built by slaves to cater to white Southern males (Jefferson’s way of keeping all the smart kids from fleeing north) to the stories of trailblazers such as Robert Bland (the first African American to graduate in 1959) and Wesley Harris (the first African American to complete engineering honors at UVA). Tragic facts are weaved with the unintentionally hilarious: Jefferson had a policy that students weren’t allowed to own slaves, despite being the largest slaveholder in the county.
Of course, today’s facts are far more welcoming. Eleven percent of the student body is African American and UVA boasts one of the highest graduation rates, 87 percent, for African American students.
The tours meet Fridays at 4pm on the Rotunda steps.