The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. House votes to force public colleges to reckon with ties to slavery, create scholarships or other programs

A view of the Rotunda on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Five public colleges and universities in Virginia would be required to detail as much as possible their ties to enslaved Black individuals who worked on their grounds and to establish scholarships or economic development programs to benefit communities descended from those people under a bill the Virginia House passed Thursday.

The bill seeks to hold accountable the College of William & Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Longwood University for their institutional actions during Virginia’s long history of supporting and defending slavery from the Colonial era through the Civil War.

Each of the five schools in recent years has confronted, or begun to confront, what role it played in the enslavement of people of African descent. In that way, they are hardly unique.

From north to south and east to west, colleges and universities have launched similar reviews of their institutional history and what should be done to acknowledge and atone for it. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore became one of the latest to address the issue last year when it revealed that its namesake benefactor had enslaved people.

Johns Hopkins, benefactor of namesake hospital and university, was an enslaver

This movement has led many schools to remove Confederate monuments and symbols, rename buildings and establish memorials to those who were enslaved.

But the Virginia legislation, House Bill 1980, seeks to advance this reckoning in a more comprehensive way at the five schools, which were founded before the abolition of slavery.

The bill, which the Democratic-led House of Delegates approved Thursday on a vote of 61 to 39, calls for the schools to identify and memorialize “to the extent possible, all enslaved individuals who labored on former and current institutionally controlled grounds and property.

It also calls for the schools to provide a “tangible benefit such as a college scholarship or community-based economic development program for individuals or specific communities with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery that will empower families to be lifted out of the cycle of poverty.”

The bill would bar the schools from using state funds or tuition revenue for what it calls the “Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program.” That means the initiative is likely to require private fundraising or endowment revenue for support. There is no estimate for what the efforts would cost. The issue now moves to the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

“We have to recognize that the racial problems we have in America are things that have been generations in the making,” said Del. David A. Reid (D-Loudoun), the chief patron of the measure. He said the bill envisions “multigenerations of commitment” to address the legacy of slavery.

Officials at the schools had no comment on the House-passed bill.

“We don’t typically comment on bills before the General Assembly completes its work,” Brian Whitson, a spokesman for William & Mary, wrote in an email.

Founded in 1693 and based in Williamsburg, William & Mary has grown from a Colonial college to a modern research university. Its roots were deeply entwined with slavery.

“William & Mary continues to be dedicated to telling a fuller, more consequential account of our history,” Whitson wrote. In 2009, the school launched what is known as the Lemon Project — named for a man it once enslaved — to research its role in slavery and racial segregation. Last year, the governing board of William & Mary approved a design for a memorial to people the college had enslaved. The $2 million project is expected to be finished in spring 2022.

“We have fewer details about enslaved individuals at William & Mary,” Whitson wrote. “Part of the issue is that most records were destroyed during fires or lost over time. As of now, we have identified 188 enslaved individuals who labored at W & M but that important research continues.”

U-Va. was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, who was an enslaver. In 2007, U-Va.’s governing board approved a resolution expressing regret for the use of enslaved people at the school. In the years since, the reckoning at Charlottesville has accelerated. In 2018, U-Va. released a report on the role of slavery at the university.

“Slavery, in every way imaginable, was central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school,” it concluded. The university recently finished construction of a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

Review: A powerful new memorial to U-Va.’s enslaved workers reclaims lost lives and forgotten narratives

VMI, in Lexington, and Longwood, in Farmville, were both founded in 1839.

VMI, under scrutiny recently for allegations of racism at the military college, in December removed from its campus a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. He had taught physics at the college before fighting in defense of slavery in the Civil War.

Through a spokesman, Bill Wyatt, VMI said it has “undertaken an ongoing research project to identify enslaved persons who worked on post.” The school is also reviewing its iconography, ceremonies and memorials. “Though VMI does not currently have a memorial to the enslaved individuals who worked at VMI,” the statement said, “it is within the Institute’s purview to do so.”

Longwood originally was a female seminary in Prince Edward County. Larissa Smith, Longwood’s provost, said the state took over the college in 1884, nearly two decades after the Civil War. “Prior to 1884, we have no institutional records that indicate or shed light on the use of enslaved labor,” Smith said in a statement. “From what we know about antebellum Prince Edward County labor practices and brick masonry, it seems likely that white, free black, and enslaved laborers were employed in constructing the original seminary building.”

VCU, in Richmond, traces its roots to the founding of the Medical College of Hampden-Sydney in 1838. That institution, later renamed, merged with another school in 1968 to become the modern VCU.

In September, VCU’s governing board voted to rename several campus buildings that had honored Confederates.

“It is important to note VCU has been working hard to confront its past treatment of African Americans,” university spokesman Michael R. Porter wrote in an email.