The University of Virginia will help pay the medical expenses of people injured during clashes with white supremacists in Charlottesville last month, in an amount equivalent to money that was pledged to the university by the Ku Klux Klan in 1921.
U-Va.’ s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, spoke to the school’s Board of Visitors on Thursday about safety, the university’s core values and the ongoing examination of its complicated history in the wake of violent confrontations with white supremacists.
The university’s rector, Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III, addressed the board: “What has become known, as both a lament and a call to arms, as ‘Charlottesville’ lays bare once again the intractable challenges that our society faces with respect to racial reconciliation, social justice and economic opportunity. Will we listen this time?”
Hundreds of people marched through the campus Aug. 11 carrying torches, shouting racial slurs and fighting with counterprotesters at a statue of the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. The next day, the conflict turned deadly when a man drove into a crowd of people protesting a planned white-supremacist rally, killing one woman and wounding 19. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the day’s demonstrations.
The violence came at a time when the university, which is preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, was delving into some of the more difficult aspects of its history, including an ongoing commission on slavery, a planned memorial to enslaved workers on campus, and other commemorations.
Difficult conversations continued this week. On Tuesday night, a rally marking the one-month anniversary of the violence culminated with some protesters shrouding a statue of Jefferson.
College Republicans at U-Va. wrote in a statement, “Vandalizing and tearing down the statue of Jefferson will do nothing to deal with the issue of racism in the United States, and it will do nothing to combat white supremacy on grounds.”
They were also troubled that some members of their group — which has condemned bigotry and hatred — who were watching the rally Tuesday night were called white supremacists by protesters.
Sullivan told the campus community in an email that she strongly disagreed with the decision to cover the statue.
Some students objected to part of Sullivan’s statement in which, after saying protesters had shrouded the statue, she ended the paragraph with, “One person was arrested for public intoxication.” That left the impression that the person arrested was a student, the group said.
Charlottesville resident Brian Lambert was arrested, according to the university police. He has no affiliation with the university and was openly carrying a firearm.
Willis Jenkins, one of several faculty members who had been asked to be at the protest to witness the events, said Lambert has often been seen at white-supremacist events.
Jenkins said he noticed that Lambert was carrying a gun in a leg holster and that he was angry at the students. Jenkins talked to him, hoping to calm him down and defuse the situation until police stepped in.
Jenkins said some people interpreted the president’s response to the protest as crafting a narrative that student demonstrators were the problem rather than white supremacists. He said it didn’t seem that she was understanding the students’ message.
“No one’s calling for removal of the statue,” he said. “It’s more about how we reckon with history.”
The Black Student Alliance at U-Va., which did not organize the protest, noted in a statement that Sullivan had told alumni in an email that the demonstrators had “desecrated ground that many of us consider sacred.”
The Black Student Alliance wrote, “Notably, she did not say this about the hundreds of torch wielding white supremacists on August 11th.”
Jenkins said remarks by the university’s rector to the board Thursday were closer to what he felt the campus has needed to hear from leadership. He noted these ideas in particular:
“Our history is bound up with that of this nation’s founding, the Civil War, and the system of Jim Crow that followed,” Conner said. “If we really want to improve the history of our past, we must improve the history of our future by continuing to acknowledge and repair our faults and bending the arc of history to provide real justice and equality for all.”
Conner acknowledged in his remarks that mistakes were made that allowed the marchers to come onto campus in August.
“We have long been a University that has welcomed and promoted the free exchange of ideas, regardless of their repugnancy, as a basic tenet of a free society. And we have policed numerous demonstrations, marches and forums with that mind-set and, perhaps naively, with trust that that mind-set was shared by those demonstrating.
“But this march was different, and the country and other communities and universities took note.
“What we witnessed was far more than a march protected by the First Amendment, but rather one that weaponized the First Amendment with the intent to intimidate and terrorize our community and our values.”
Sullivan spoke of changes the university has made to improve safety. She also noted that someone had put up anti-Muslim posters on campus Tuesday, and said, “Thomas Jefferson was imperfect, but he also contributed to the religious and other freedoms that we uphold against those who would seek to divide us.”
And she addressed a gift that was pledged to the university by the KKK in 1921. She said the university’s then-president acknowledged the pledge, but U-Va. has not found evidence that it was ever paid.
“We’re going to acknowledge the pledge,” she said in prepared remarks to the board, “and we’re going do so in a way that would be as disagreeable as possible for any remnants of the KKK who may be watching.
“That $1,000 pledge, if inflated to today’s dollars, would be worth about $12,400. With that number in mind, I have allocated $12,500 from private sources to the ‘Charlottesville Patient Support Fund,’ which is managed by the UVA Health Foundation, to pay medical expenses for people who were injured during the violence in August. Any leftover funds will support care for other members of our community.
“In other words, we are allocating that century-old pledge from white supremacists to heal the wounds inflicted by the dying vestiges of white supremacy that struck Charlottesville last month. I hope any remaining members of the KKK will appreciate the irony.”