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History as Lesson

President Teresa A. Sullivan Jane Haley

Last June, we announced the launch of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, created with generous support from former Board of Visitors member John Nau and his wife, Bobbie.

With its massive scale of death and destruction and its connections to slavery in America, the Civil War can make us uncomfortable as a topic of study and discussion—to such a degree that the Civil War has been eliminated altogether from some American high school history courses.

At UVA, we do not avoid difficult topics because they might make us uncomfortable. Instead, we confront these issues head-on as a means of learning from them, even when this requires confronting ourselves.

Just as our nation has a discomfiting racial history, so does our University. We know that enslaved African Americans helped build the University’s original buildings and served in various capacities during UVA’s first 50 years of existence. We also know that African Americans were barred from admission as students until the mid-20th century. African-American students now graduate from UVA at a rate higher than that of any other public institution, and African-American alumni have become leaders in many areas of endeavor. 

Just as we choose to study the Civil War and to understand its difficult lessons, we choose to confront the elements of UVA’s history that are reprehensible. Our task is to study our own history with impartiality, and to give an unflinching account of our past as a lesson for current and future generations. In the process, we hope our students will learn to engage with difficult topics in respectful, civil and analytic ways, not glossing over personal discomfort but not letting it derail their conversations either. 

In 2013, we formed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to explore UVA’s historical relationship with slavery. The commission and the larger UVA community have made significant progress in shedding light on our history with slavery. Recent steps have included naming a new dormitory in honor of William and Isabella Gibbons, a married couple who were enslaved at UVA and became leaders in the African-American community after emancipation. We also established Virginia’s Colleges and Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium to support collaborative research on the history of slavery at colleges and universities, and we have partnered with Monticello, Montpelier and Ash Lawn-Highland to learn about our shared history as it relates to slavery.

A national dialogue has emerged over the past year as college students and university leaders have grappled with the legacies of figures who were affiliated with their schools in positive ways, but who were also involved with racist actions or policies. In one example, the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents recently voted to remove the name of Harry C. Byrd from the school’s football stadium. Byrd served as the school’s president from 1935 to 1954 and made many positive contributions, but he also opposed admitting black students until a court order forced their acceptance. The move to strip Byrd’s name from the stadium was met with resistance from some parts of the Maryland community. Similar debates about historical figures have occurred at Princeton, Yale and other schools.

Our study of UVA’s history naturally leads us to study our founder, and in doing so, we face the reality that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, that he lived within a massive slave-holding economy in the American South and that he condoned the work of enslaved persons at the University. Rather than purging these facts from UVA’s history, we are committed to researching, chronicling and learning from them.

As with all humans, Thomas Jefferson had contradictions.  He condemned slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia, yet he never ended his reliance on slave labor. Ultimately, his ringing declaration that all men are created equal became the heart of Abraham Lincoln’s political theory, and thus helped lead to the abolition of slavery.

We will not flinch from what Mr. Jefferson and others in the University’s history got wrong, but neither will we fail to recognize what they got right. We will not seek to erase history; we will seek a full and candid understanding of our history.

Because Mr. Jefferson created a university committed to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, we are inspired to pursue the full truth at UVA today.  Dozens of faculty members in various schools and departments across Grounds are teaching and writing about the Civil War, the civil rights movement, race relations and related topics. Students are developing an app to provide a guide to the Lawn incorporating the history of enslaved people at the University. And we are pursuing a broad institutional effort to enhance the diversity of our faculty and student populations.

As we approach the beginning of the University’s bicentennial celebration—now about a year away, with a launch event coming in October 2017—we will continue to examine our history and to tell the full story of the University of Virginia and its founder, complete with all of its complexities and contradictions.

President Teresa A. Sullivan's signature
President Teresa A. Sullivan