Thomas Jones had two reasons for wanting to graduate early from the University of Virginia.
The first was that Virginia’s all-time leading rusher wanted the option of heading to the NFL early — but with a bachelor’s degree already in hand.
The second was more personal. Jones, an African American man from Big Stone Gap, a town in southwest Virginia that nearly kisses the Kentucky state line, wanted to send something of a message to his school’s revered founder, Thomas Jefferson. That Jefferson owned slaves and that slave labor built the university were never far from Jones’s mind during his college days.
“I graduated in three years because, it was almost kind of saying to him, to the history of that school — my ancestors were on this campus. And there were a lot of really bad things done to them,” Jones said in a telephone interview this past week. “So for me to be able to come here and graduate just like any other white student and graduate a year early — it’s kind of special. It might not make sense to a lot of people, but it made sense to me. Every day on campus I knew where I was.”
Jones, who left Virginia in 1999 and went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL, is among current and former Virginia athletes who have spoken out since white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen rallied in Charlottesville and on university grounds last weekend. The overwhelming message from the college town’s most prominent faces — men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett and the entire football team among them — has been one of unity.
Jones shares in that sentiment. But the days following the violence in Charlottesville have caused some to reflect on their experiences as an African American athlete at a progressive university. Others raised concern for the safety of minorities on campus.
Justin Anderson, a former Virginia basketball player who won the 2014 ACC title with the Cavaliers, tweeted at the university’s Twitter account Sunday: “How do you explain to the current black scholars and alum that it’s safe to return to Charlottesville?!?”
He said it was an honest question.
“I wanted my question to be seen. I wanted my question to be proposed to U-Va., and sure enough, they came out with a few statements explaining how they’re going to ensure safety, how we don’t promote things like this, how we stand together,” Anderson, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, said over the phone. “That’s when the hashtags started rolling in, #Hoostogether, #Hoosagainsthate, and things like that occurred to give people the confidence of knowing that this is one family, and outsiders, whoever it may be, won’t come in and divide our house and our love that we built for each other and for the university.”
The hashtags play off the Cavaliers’ colloquial nickname used around campus, “Wahoos,” or “’Hoos.” Seeing them crop up on social media confirmed Anderson’s experience in his years spent in Charlottesville.
Anderson, who left Virginia in 2015 after three years on campus, never viewed his college experience through the prism of race. He has discussed social awareness and activism with his former teammates, particularly after the men’s basketball team posted a picture in the wake of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests last year.
The team posted a group photo on social media of the players kneeling on Virginia’s basketball court with their arms linked in solidarity. The purpose was to raise awareness, the players said at the time. Anderson wants to do the same by speaking out now.
“I never really took the time to say, ‘I’m a black athlete at the University of Virginia,’ ” Anderson said. “When you’re on a team, you’re in a position where you’re constantly meeting new people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different races, ethnicities, social classes, economic classes. It’s so many people you’re getting a chance to meet and grow to love like your brother or your sister. . . . It’s a mixing bowl. As athletes, we’re constantly being put in a position where we have to love people and accept people for who they are. When we see something like what happened over the weekend, it’s hard to wrap our minds around it.”
For Jones, 38 and in the midst of a second career in acting, fond memories of brotherhood and good times in Charlottesville coexist beside unique experiences as an African American on campus.
The former running back reflects on his college days with pride. His connection to the university runs deep — three of his younger sisters also matriculated at Virginia. Someone in his family was on campus from 1996 until 2011.
“The University of Virginia is an incredible university. I had an incredible experience there,” Jones said. “The black students, we knew the situation. We knew where we were, and we understood the history of the school. But just like everything else in this country that was built off of racism and oppression, it was something we just had to deal with. We had to deal with it, and it’s very tough to deal with.
“But at the same time, there were a lot of incredible white students there. And Hispanic students and Asian students and so on — there was a wide variety of cultures there. My experience there was, we were all more interested in getting to know each other’s culture.
“It was just a different time and space than it is now. We didn’t have social media. We didn’t have access to information that quickly. I couldn’t look down at my phone and see a person get killed by a car. You had time to think about things, to talk to people.”
Jones completed his undergraduate studies, majoring in psychology, in three years, opting to spend his senior season as a graduate student. He said he took advantage of the school’s vast African American studies program and learned far more about African American culture than he did growing up in Big Stone Gap.
Nowadays, he returns to campus occasionally and stays connected to the university’s goings-on.
“When I go to Charlottesville, I feel home,” Jones said. “It’s like I’m in a time machine, like a high school recruit again. I just feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. There will always be a special relationship between me and Charlottesville and U-Va. But I also understand the history of Thomas Jefferson and what happened on those grounds. And that’s just something that you can’t deny.”