The University of Virginia Magazine

In histories of U.Va., enslaved African Americans largely go unnamed and sometimes even unmentioned, and scholars, until recently, have done little to bring them out of the shadows.

The tide has turned in recent years, as the Board of Visitors, students, faculty, staff and alumni have initiated efforts to understand, document and commemorate the slaves who lived and labored at the University of Virginia. Each group is working on answers to a common set of questions: Who were these enslaved men and women who helped build and run the University? What did they do, how were they treated and how should the University treat their legacy?

When Maurie McInnis (Col ’88), professor of art history and vice provost for academic affairs, attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, she worked for the University Guide Service. “The standard line then was that Thomas Jefferson would not allow slaves to come with students; therefore, there were no slaves,” she says. McInnis graduated in 1988, but later returned to teach art history and for a number of years has lectured, with Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97), an associate professor of history, on Jefferson, U.Va. and slavery. One of her undergraduate students was Catherine S. Neale (Col ’06), who wrote what scholars agree is the definitive treatment of slavery at U.Va. to date.

The first two slaves at the University worked to clear land that had once been James Monroe’s cornfield during the summer of 1817. Then, at the first Board of Visitors meeting, on October 7, 1817, officials authorized the hiring of additional laborers, including slaves, to begin construction of the University. According to Neale, these men hauled timber to construction sites on Grounds, where they cut and nailed it. They also molded and fired bricks and used them to build the University’s first buildings and walls. In an effort at cost cutting, most of these slaves at the University were hired from local owners, who were paid a set annual amount per slave and who expected their “property” to be returned reasonably well clothed. This often meant nothing more than providing outer- and underclothing, along with double-soled shoes.

Tradition placed the onus of medical care for hired slaves on the University, but care was sometimes delayed as slave owners and the University argued over who was responsible for the cost. In at least one instance this came at the expense of a sick slave’s life, according to research by Ervin Jordan Jr., an associate professor and research archivist in Special Collections who is at work on a book about African Americans at the University.

The University owned outright a handful of slaves. Jefferson himself, in his role as a member of the Board of Visitors, agreed to purchase a slave for $125 in January 1819. By 1830, the University owned four slaves. In 1832, the University purchased a slave named Lewis Commodore for $580, Henry Martin’s predecessor as bell ringer. At any given time, however, there were as many as 100 or more slaves working on Grounds.

Once the University was built, the work of slaves transitioned from construction to the day-to-day necessities of students, who were prohibited from bringing their own slaves onto Grounds. Some students who owned slaves brought them to Charlottesville despite the prohibition, hiring them out or housing them elsewhere.

In contrast, faculty were allowed to bring their personal slaves with them to live at the University. Students were, however, attended to by slaves on Grounds; those slaves were owned by the independent hotelkeepers who ran the hotels, or boardinghouses, where students lived.

“There was about one slave for every 20 students,” says Ervin Jordan. “They were kept busy during the course of the day.”

In 1835, an average slave working in one of the hotels began the day making fires, blacking boots, sweeping floors, making beds and carrying away ashes. On a more periodic basis he did various “deep-cleaning” chores such as whitewashing the fireplace before either bringing in the ice or the wood, depending on the season.

Slaves were often blamed when living conditions at the University deteriorated, as they often did. The historian Philip Alexander Bruce, who published a five-volume history of the University in the early 1920s, referred to “shifty negro servants,” “slipshod slave service,” and “lazy, untrained slaves,” blaming them, among other things, for contributing to deadly outbreaks of disease. Catherine Neale’s history includes accounts of other slaves being kicked, beaten or yelled at by students who, in some instances, resented the fact that faculty were allowed to keep slaves on Grounds.

“Typical students came from Southern, slave-owning families,” Jordan explains. “When you owned slaves, you had the power of life and death over another human being. These students tended to have what I would call an attitude problem with authority. These students might even have owned more slaves than their professors, and they did not take too kindly to authority.”

According to Neale, a group of students beat Lewis Commodore, the enslaved bell ringer, apparently in protest of the school’s strict time schedule in 1837. In a rare move, Commodore was asked to testify, and he identified one of his assailants. The following year, two students attacked Fielding, a male slave belonging to Professor Charles Bonnycastle. Fielding received, as described by Bonnycastle, “a severe and inhuman beating” because he had interfered with the students’ attempts to disband a group of free blacks. When Bonnycastle intervened “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered,” he too was beaten. In this case, Fielding was not allowed to testify and ultimately the University declined to punish the students. Other instances of abuse were punished; for example, a student who fired a pistol and attacked a slave in 1839 with a knife was expelled.

In 1856, according to faculty minutes cited in Gayle Schulman’s history, a student confessed to beating unconscious a slave girl, aged 10 or 11. She had wandered onto Grounds and, after being confronted by the student, had not replied with what he deemed to be appropriate deference. The student told professors “that whenever a servant is insolent to him, he will take upon himself the right of punishing him without the consent of his master.” The student said his actions were “not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons.” The faculty, after originally recommending expulsion, reconsidered and the student was not punished.

Such a result was fairly typical. McInnis says that early records of the University indicate that students were more likely to be disciplined for wearing the wrong jacket than for assaulting a slave. As for their sometimes violent behavior: “It helps put into perspective what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia,” she says, referring to Jefferson’s famous observation that the white children of slaveholders, “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” It was for that reason that Jefferson prohibited students from bringing their own slaves on Grounds.

There’s a more extensive version of Brendon Wolfe’s article here.