The Conflicted Reality of African Americans at the Epicenter of UVA

Joseph Bonjawo
Opinion Writer

Updated: November 19, 2020

The University of Virginia is considered to be one of the more prestigious academic institutions within the United States. The prestige is solidified by the University’s reputable undergraduate and graduate programs, its renowned professional schools (medical, law, and business), as well as its unique method of engaging student leaders (i.e., Honor SystemUniversity Judiciary System, and Student Council). However, in spite of these incredible attributes, the University of Virginia possesses an infamous legacy of exploiting enslaved labor to establish its existence and facilitate the matriculation of its students. 

In order to address this ineffaceable burden, the University has attempted to contextualize the historical narratives of enslaved laborers in Charlottesville. According to an article titled “Renewed effort at UVa will try to ‘tell a new history’ of Charlottesville after slavery”, the University has established a President’s Commission on UVa in the Age of Segregation. The intended objective of this commission was to direct particular attention towards the historical period that occurred precisely 100 years after slavery’s emancipation (that is, 1865-1965). The preceding commission, The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, unveiled to the audience the integral contributions of enslaved Africans during the University of Virginia’s inception. The advantage of these commissions is that historical figures who were very often overlooked during their years of existence will instead be commemorated accordingly for their endeavors. Additionally, the expectation is that prospective students will not remain oblivious towards the University’s dependence on the labor of enslaved Africans. 

The University of Virginia has initiated the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which contains the identities of nearly 4,000 enslaved Africans that were primarily responsible for sustaining the University. Two specific individuals who were documented include William and Isabella Gibbons. As mentioned in an article titled “New U.Va. Residence Hall, Gibbons House, Named for Former Slave Couple”, both Isabella and William were enslaved prior to establishing themselves as prominent figures in the University. One particular aspect of this account that is unsettling is that the former owners of Isabella and William were professors at the University. Dr. Henry Howard, an owner of William, was stated to have been a professor of anatomy and surgery. Francis Smith, the owner of Isabella, was mentioned to have been a physics professor. 

In contemporary society, professors may often serve as mentors that contribute to the enrichment of students. Additionally, the University of Virginia is known for cherishing the core values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect. However, the mere fact that such professors were owners of slaves somewhat contradicts the moral attributes that are apparently of considerable significance at the University. Moreover, one would not expect professors of such an esteemed caliber to condone a tradition as unconscionable as the leveraging of slave labor.  

There is no doubt that the exploitation of enslaved Africans served as the primary catalyst for the University of Virginia’s construction. Furthermore, in spite of the University’s attempts to acknowledge its narrative of African enslavement, there nonetheless exist considerable disparities that perpetuate the instability of African Americans today. During the 16th of October, 2019, I enjoyed the privilege of speaking with Associate Dean Grimes of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. During a specific segment of the discussion, Dean Grimes mentioned that the locations in Central Virginia were very much agricultural due to the production of tobacco and cotton by enslaved Africans. The term “agricultural” invariably translated to the existence of slave labor. This particular detail was especially critical. The reason for this is that there is one specific city in Central Virginia that is notorious for currently possessing among the most significant of inequities in the distribution of wealth: the City of Charlottesville.

A 2018 article titled “‘You Are Still Black’: Charlottesville’s Racial Divide Hinders Students” provides an account of Zyahna Bryant, a current UVA student, and Trinity Hughes. Both of these individuals are African American females, and they were high school seniors during the article’s publication year. The report specifies that Bryant attended a Caucasian elementary school.

On the contrary, Hughes attended an elementary school located in a neighborhood that was predominantly African American. Inevitably, the school’s demographics were consistent with those of the community. The most critical aspect of this account is the following: due to attending a Caucasian elementary school, Bryant was able to access the district’s gifted program. Hughes, however, was denied access, and consequently believed that she was not sufficiently competitive for selective colleges. Perhaps the difference in the elementary schools’ demographics may have contributed to such a discrepancy in the selection of gifted students. 

 One may consider the account of Hughes and Bryant to be nothing more than an individual concern. However, accounts of this nature are every bit as existent in news reports and varying forms of social media. Additionally, Bryant’s acceptance in the gifted program does not suggest that the constraints attributed to African Americans are diminishing. As mentioned in the article, nearly 50% of all African American students in Charlottesville were unable to read at the appropriate grade level since 2017. Such an appalling statistic is a result of the economic inequities in Charlottesville and the United States. This assertion could be solidified by an astonishing development disclosed by Stanford University researchers referenced in the article. The researchers have confirmed that nearly one-third of the 25 districts that contain the most enormous disparities in achievement are near college towns.  Considering that affluent families in these locations were stated to have directed a significant portion of their investments to their children’s education, academic achievement was nearly an inevitability. On the contrary, seeing as the vast majority of Charlottesville’s African American children were mentioned to possess a reduced family income, investments in education were simply infeasible for them. 

After examining the details above, I detected an unpleasant paradox. The University of Virginia has directed its investments towards memorials intended to commemorate historical figures of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the University does not utilize its resources to specifically address the deprivation of contemporary African Americans that reside within Charlottesville. As stated by Dean Grimes, the University of Virginia currently serves as the central employer in Charlottesville. Therefore, one must certainly consider whether or not the mere gesture of acknowledging enslaved laborers will alleviate the contemporary dilemmas of African Americans in Charlottesville. Assuming that the University of Virginia is the remarkable institution that it claims to embody, it must establish initiatives on behalf of the demographics that have thus far been marginalized.


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