21st century lens: UVA’s troubled history of race

Henry Martin, who rang the bell at UVA on the hour for 50 years, was born a slave in 1826 and is now honored with a plaque. Photo: UVA Special Collections Henry Martin, who rang the bell at UVA on the hour for 50 years, was born a slave in 1826 and is now honored with a plaque. Photo: UVA Special Collections

When she came from Rhode Island to the University of Virginia, Alice Burgess was aware there was a dark side to the school’s racial history, but figured she’d be too immersed in pre-med sciences to have to deal with what some call “the elephant in the room.”

It didn’t work out that way. As a University guide, Burgess said, “You find this hard-hitting history that includes many ugly, dark happenings.” That led her to take a class called Race and Repair, where she and fellow students made a map of UVA’s “race places” that they hope will soon be a mobile app.

The map, now in pdf form with 45 blurbs of a couple hundred words each, is “massive,” said Burgess. And it’s a map that continually grows, with the recently added March 18 site on the Corner of Martese Johnson’s bloody arrest by ABC agents. “It shouldn’t be static,” she said. “Clearly with the events of the year, race is still an issue.”

Depicted on the map is the freed African-American community at the south end of the Lawn where Old Cabell Hall stands on land originally purchased by seamstress Kitty Foster in 1833 that the Board of Visitors called “Canada” and The Daily Progress referred to as the “Pest Hole.” Old Cabell Hall is also where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1963, a momentous visit not attended by any of the University’s senior administration. Jordan Hall makes the tour by being named for a major eugenicist, Dr. Harvey E. Jordan.

Knowing about the University’s history is “crucial,” said Burgess, noting that UVA was a latecomer to admitting both blacks and women.

The Race and Repair class started in 2010 and is sponsored by UCARE—University and Community Action for Racial Equality. The class is held off-Grounds at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and is open to the public. Students gain a “strong understanding of how the troubled history of race at UVA spills out into the community beyond the walls of the University,” said history professor Phyllis Leffler, who co-teaches the class with Frank Dukes.

Dukes said the University could do better at “turning its face” to the town around it. “A lot of people blame the University for taking away developable land,” he said. “City Council will say it provides social services to a lot of people who work at the University because it doesn’t pay a living wage.”

Both profs stress the “repair” aspect of the class. “All the students have to do a significant final project that must make a contribution not just to the history of race, but to the larger issue of repair,” said Leffler.

“We know many, many places where there is some noteworthy history that is absolutely invisible in the present,” said Leffler. “The map and app are efforts to make that history more visible.”

Another student project is a weeklong summer program for high school students on the history of slavery and race, with several spaces reserved for local students, said Leffler.

Trayc Freeman’s project was inspired by the death last fall of 61-year-old custodian Emanual Brown in a bathroom in Cabell Hall. She was moved by how little notice there was of his death, she said in a video on the website she created, “We the people: An acknowledgment of the black labor force at Mr. Jefferson’s University.”

She said it was a big thing to recognize the labor force of the past, but what about the labor force of today? She interviewed workers and hopes the videos will spark acknowledgment. “These people have names, faces, families and ideas,” she said. “They’re here, they keep this school running.”

Hawa Ahmed, a 22-year-old politics major, wanted to educate the faculty on the racial climate at UVA and get them to acknowledge their own biases after some racial issues here had been pretty much ignored in classes, upsetting some minority students, she said.

She indexed 96 Cavalier Daily stories between 1999 and 2015 that dealt with black students, and then coded the students’ dissatisfaction, for example, with leadership, the Lawn selection process or law enforcement. She also coded the type of repair a situation generated.

“The nature of how we respond is statement, rally, forum,” said Ahmed. “It’s almost a pattern since 1999.” Other schools are big on protests, she said, but she only found two protests at UVA during the 16-year span.

Ahmed also discovered the more national spotlight on an issue, the bigger response from the University community. The 2003 assault of Student Council president candidate Daisy Lundy was “the only incident I could see that brought tangible change,” said Ahmed.

She plans to give her charts to the faculty senate. “I hope the faculty and administration can see the historical implications of being a black student at UVA and what a unique experience that is,” she said. “I wanted to come to this issue as a historian rather than a pissed-off student.”

And after a year at UVA that saw the death of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone rape article and the arrest of Martese Johnson, Burgess said she’d seen inspiring and really productive discussions. “I feel the community really cares about each other,” she said. “I think there are some silver linings to a very dark year.”

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