On a chilly Thursday evening last week, several dozen people gathered at the Central Library for a talk on “the risks and rewards of public engagement” by someone who knows them all too well.
Jalane Schmidt, a community activist and professor of religious studies at UVA, was recently sued for a comment she made in a C-VILLE Weekly article about the plaintiffs suing the city to stop it from moving its Confederate statues. One of those plaintiffs, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II, objected to the story’s mention of his family’s history of slaveholding, and to Schmidt’s observation that the family had been “roiling the lives of black people” for generations. He sued Schmidt, this paper, and former news editor Lisa Provence for defamation, seeking $1.7 million. The lawsuit was dismissed October 28.
Schmidt’s case highlights current threats to academic freedom and public engagement, says Herbert Tucker, president of the UVA chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which sponsored the event. “If she is at risk,” he wrote in an email to C-VILLE, “in pursuing a call to community engagement that UVA now expressly encourages, and speaking her mind on a topic of public urgency that she has extensively studied, then all of us are at risk.”
In the McIntire Room, named for the man who commissioned the Lee statue, Schmidt began her speech with a deep dive into her background. She became passionate about “participatory cultural work” while conducting research in Cuba, where “learning was often conducted in the streets, or other open air spaces, or public forums,” she said.
After receiving tenure at UVA in 2015, Schmidt began teaching critical whiteness studies, which, in turn, piqued her interest in Zyahna Bryant’s petition to remove the city’s Robert E. Lee statue. In 2016, she started going to meetings of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, which the city created to consider the issue. She was disappointed that, of the few people who attended, most were in favor of keeping the Confederate statues.
Wanting to “step up” her game about Civil War history, she did more research and connected with historians on Twitter, leading her to the work of respected Civil War scholars.
“It was from Ervin Jordan that I learned…that 52 percent of the local population was enslaved [before emancipation,]” Schmidt said. “Because this was such a compelling fact, I began to mention it every time I spoke to the BRC…if 52 percent of the population was enslaved, then those statues are lying to us.”
She, along with several other community activists, encouraged more people to attend BRC meetings and speak out against the statues. Before the commission’s final meeting, they handed out T-shirts saying, “I stand with the 52%.”
Following the release of the BRC’s report, City Council voted in February 2017 to relocate the Lee statue, and the announcement of the Unite the Right rally soon followed.
“It was not an option for those of us who oppose white supremacy to allow these groups to appear in public spaces unopposed,” Schmidt said. “That is what happened in the 1920s when the Klan crested here. I have not found any record in all of my research of any white people standing up to the Klan.”
Schmidt helped to organize counterprotests and publicized the Klan’s 1921 gift to UVA. Though she was “shell-shocked” after witnessing the violence of the rally first-hand, she continued to voice her opposition to the monuments, including by leading popular tours, with Andrea Douglas of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, that aim to provide a more complete story about the Confederate statues.
Of the lawsuit filed against her, Schmidt said she stands by her statements about Tayloe’s family, one of the largest slave-holding dynasties in Virginia. She called the lawsuit a “textbook case of white fragility” and an attempt to silence her.
Though the case was dismissed, with Judge Claude Worrell ruling that it had no legal basis to proceed, Schmidt remains displeased with way UVA handled the lawsuit. Virginia’s Office of Risk Management turned down her case, and the university did not ask the Virginia attorney general to overturn that decision.
Instead, the ACLU represented Schmidt and covered all of her legal fees.
“UVA has been encouraging [professors], especially as of late, to do public engagement scholarship,” she said. “But then the institution has not yet figured out what that means.”
Despite the risks, especially for those who do not have tenure, Schmidt encouraged more professors to speak to the press and be publicly engaged.
“Not everybody needs to be out in the barricades. There’s a whole lot of infrastructure that…supports the people who are,” she said, offering the example of making food for an activist group, babysitting kids during a protest, or supporting activists in court.
“There’s so many ways to be supportive that don’t require actual physical presence in the line of fire.”