Saturday, September 14, 2013

Exposing Virginia Colleges' Slave History Should Spread

Isaac G. Jefferson, son of a Thomas Jefferson slave.
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has put together a group of 27 members of the university faculty, staff and students, along with alumni and community members to once and for all study and release the details of UVa's slave history. (Report here.)

This is a good thing to do and I would suggest every college and university in Virginia should follow suit. The history's there. It needs to be revealed.

I was at a football game in Lexington last weekend, sitting with my friend Doug Cumming and his wife and Doug, a journalism assistant professor, mentioned that W&L is one of the few colleges that  actually owned slaves. Both founders were slave owners (though Robert E. Lee's "ownership" has some asterisks attached, since his wife was the owner of record).

Washington College President Henry Ruffner, in fact, was both a slave owner and a proponent of releasing slaves, a conflicted view that was not as unusual as you might suspect. Lee held it, as well, and so did Thomas Jefferson, who owned 600 slaves.

In 1847, Rufner wrote (source here) that "as we are nearly all slaveholders, and none of us approve of the principles and measures of the sect of abolitionists, we think that no man can be offended with us for offering to the people an argument whose sole object is to show that the prosperity of our West[ern] Virginia--if not East Virginia also--would be promoted by removing gradually the institution of slavery, in a manner consistent with the rights and interests of slaveholders."

I'm not sure many people know this chapter and it remains a source of embarrassment for W&L. Coming clean, apologizing and creating discussion would lighten this dark stain on an excellent university's blouse. The commission would also offer a valuable learning experience for everybody involved, not just students.

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