Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Bit of an Historic Dustup at Hollins

Hollins founder Charles Cocke.
One of my favorite people and one of the best executives I know, Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, is getting some heat from a group of students because she called the founder of the university a "progressive thinker" during a Founder's Day speech.

Charles Cocke, the university's founder in the mid-19th Century, was a slave owner who used slaves to work the university. The students, part of a minority group, believe that nobody who was a progressive thinker could possibly have owned slaves, even in 1850, even in the South.

They forget that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and a whole group of people who founded the United States owned slaves. It was what wealthy southerners did until they couldn't (following the Civil War).

Cocke, who was an ancestor of my favorite ex-wife, was likely a good educator and from what I understand some of that education went to slaves, which was distinctly against the law in the pre-war South. In fact, Stonewall Jackson was all but on the courthouse steps because he educated black children in a Lexington church (taught them to read) while he was at VMI as the Civil War broke out. He likely would have been prosecuted had he not been desperately needed by Robert E. Lee.

Nancy Gray
Judging people from other eras by modern standards of behavior and legality is folly at best. Slavery is, was and always will be wrong. The slave supporters should have known and recognized that, but they didn't.

The situation had a lot to do with money and the amounts slaves could bring in to their owners with minimal investment. I'm not so sure that our values are vastly different today, given how our country's financial system is run. It is thoroughly immoral, but we can't seem to get anybody prosecuted.

Nancy Gray is not a racist. She is not ignorant of early-American fact. She is not insensitive. She would have done well to have said something about Hollins' slave heritage on Founder's Day and my guess is that she will in the future. But this incident needs to be used for its educational value and then everybody should move on with the new lesson.

My guess is Mr. Cocke would have agreed.

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