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Facing Up to a Role in Slavery

April 25, 2007

Two months after the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution apologizing with "profound regret" for the state's slave-holding past, one of its most revered institutions has followed suit. The University of Virginia announced Tuesday that its board had passed a unanimous resolution expressing "particular regret" for the university's use of slave labor from its founding in 1819 through the end of the Civil War.

The institution believes this is the first such resolution passed by a university governing board. In 2004, the University of Alabama's faculty apologized for its historical role during slavery, and last year Brown University released a report summarizing several years of research into its ties to the slave trade. In recent months, other state legislatures have passed or begun debate on resolutions similar to Virginia's, leading to what Alfred L. Brophy, a professor of law at the University of Alabama who led the apology effort in the faculty senate there, called a "domino effect."

Unlike the efforts at Brown, the Virginia resolution offers an admission of guilt on behalf of a public institution, and unlike Alabama, it carries the weight of the entire governing board. (It doesn't, however, contain the word "apology.") "Our effort here was aimed at recognizing the artisanship and blood, sweat and tears put into what is considered to be the leading architectural accomplishment in the United States," said Thomas F. Farrell II, the rector (or chairman) of the board.

The university has stepped up its diversity and recruitment efforts in the past five years -- a marked change from its reluctance to embrace the civil rights movement four decades ago. Warren M. Thompson, a member of the board and chair of its special committee on diversity, said the resolution had added value for him personally as the great-great-grandson of a slave who lived in the area. "I’m very proud of this and proud of my fellow board members," Thompson said. "My father grew up about 20 miles from the university and was not allowed to go to the university because of his race, and he made sure all three of his children got degrees from the university. But he told me this story time and time again ... I said to him, if you stop telling the story, I’ll try to do something about it."

Thompson characterized the resolution both as an acknowledgment of the forced labor that helped bring the university into being as well as an "affirmative statement about what we’d like to do in the future, and continue to do in the future, in making the university one that is open to people based strictly on people's ability and their desire to work hard."

The effort comes after not only the state's resolution but the board's authorization of a memorial stone at the Rotunda for the slaves who worked at the university. But even as the university does what it deems necessary to atone for its own past, Farrell said, the history of "slavery is a part of what this country is all about, and what this state is all about, and what this institution is all about."

That, Brophy hopes, will now spur other institutions to follow a similar path. "I think what’s important is that the great University of Virginia has done this," he said. "It makes it both more acceptable and important for other institutions to undertake similar investigations."

What Brophy, the author of Reparations: Pro and Con (Oxford University Press), finds important, beyond the apology itself, is that such investigations help illuminate "the connection between the past and the present, getting further knowledge in which the institution of slavery is connected to the present." Otherwise, "people wouldn’t have any reason to know that UVa owned any slaves."

Peter S. Carmichael, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has studied the Civil War and Southern identity, said that the apology is something that people across the political divide should embrace. But he added that it might discourage focusing on the complexities of the antebellum South and those who lived in slave societies.

"The resolution has its value in bringing attention to the fact that the University of Virginia was created, was sustained, was energized by the institution of slavery -- in its physical construction and also in its intellectual climate," he said, "committed intellectually, economically and politically to the institution of slavery." But he added that it would do nothing to add to existing discussions of slavery in the classroom, and that it could "give some people a sense of moral superiority over the past."

One figure who will surely be invoked in the discussions surrounding the resolution is the university's founder, Thomas Jefferson. While he publicly opposed slavery and expressed deep personal qualms about that feature of American society, he owned slaves himself.

"We realize and recognize that Thomas Jefferson is viewed as the founder of the university, the architect of the university, but we also realize that someone got the footings, laid the bricks, put the roof on, and much of that work was done by enslaved men and women, and now it’s time that we recognize those people as well," Thompson said.

 

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