The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Slavery, in every way imaginable, was central’: U-Va. continues to explore its history

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)
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After a five-year plunge into the history of slavery at the University of Virginia, a commission has concluded that slavery played an integral role in the founding, construction and operations of the public university. A new commission will continue the examination of race by studying the years of segregation there.

U-Va., like dozens of colleges, has been delving into its complicated racial past — an inquiry that has particular resonance in a place marked by white-supremacist rallies and violence last year.

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In its final report, the U-Va. President’s Commission on Slavery and the University described a school designed by a man whose earliest memory was of being carried on a pillow by an enslaved person. Even the last moments of Thomas Jefferson — who never knew life without slavery — were eased by a slave who adjusted his pillows as he lay dying.

“Slavery, in every way imaginable, was central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school,” the report concluded. Jefferson “believed that a Southern institution was necessary to protect the sons of the South from abolitionist teachings in the North.”

U-Va. acknowledges its slave history

The report described a student in the 1850s beating a 10-year-old enslaved girl, along with other instances of violence over the years; students robbing the graves of slaves for anatomical studies; and students and faculty strongly supporting the Confederate cause.

The commission prompted visible change at U-Va., including buildings named to honor enslaved people, classes on the legacy of slavery, a walking tour of important sites and plans for a large memorial inscribed with the names of some of the thousands of slaves who worked there.

It called for ongoing efforts such as preserving historical sites where slaves lived and creating research endowments.

University of Virginia plans a large memorial commemorating thousands of enslaved people who worked there

Teresa Sullivan, who was replaced as U-Va.’s president this month by James Ryan, announced in February that the university would create a new group to continue the historical research in the years after 1865: the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation. Sullivan said at the time that the commission would have a four-year charter, and Ryan endorsed the idea.