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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.
Julia Randle found in her research that,
Of the 112 Episcopal clergy canonically and physically resident in the Diocese of Virginia in 1860, 103 could be located in the U.S. Census of that year. Eighty-four of the brethren, or 82 percent, possessed at least one slave, while some owned dozens.
In our own research, we have located thus far located 99 in the U.S. Census of 1860. Thus far we find 67, or 68%, were slaveholders.
We found our 67th slaveholder yesterday, the Rev. George W. Dame. He served Camden Parish in Danville, Pittsylvania County (map), and is remembered as the father of the Episcopal Church in the area. Like most us, a single story does not describe us. Dame was a slave holder, but he was also a faithful chaplain to Union soldiers imprisoned in Danville.
Dame is found in this Census page where you can see his age (48), occupation (“Clergyman P.E.”) and place of birth (New Hampshire). Given the precision of the occupation we can be certain this is our man. The census record also shows the other members of his household, their race , the value of his real estate and the value of his personal estate.
The value of Dame’s estate was considerable for the time: real estate is $10,200; his personal estate, $14,000.
There were eleven persons in the Dame household, all white. Eight of those are probably his wife and children. Besides Dame, four others in the household are earning an income. Two others, last name Cushing, are likely relatives: see biography and Dame family papers below.
The census slave schedule shows Dame owned fourteen slaves, and had four slave houses. Slave names are not given in census slave schedules. His slaves by age, gender and color:
- 27, F (female), B (black)
- 35, F, B
- 35, M, B
- 28, M, B
- 26, F, B
- 26, M, B
- 23, F, B
- 15, M, B
- 9, M, B
- 7, M, B
- 5, M, B
- 3, F, B
- 3, M, B
- 1/2, F, B
(A hint to other researchers: The reason this record was not found quickly on ancestry.com is due to an electronic mistranscription of his name. He has located by looking on the Census page for neighbors who likely owned slaves.)
More about George W. Dame
Civil War Prison Chaplain. Most of the 1300 Union soldiers who died in the six Confederate prisons in Danville are
buried in National Cemetery in Danville. Dame “would go to the prisons each day and copy down the names of those who had died.” His records have been used in a project to more fully identify the men buried there. More: Dr. Rev. George Washington Dame lived on a three-acre tract on Colquhoun Street not so far from what became the National Cemetery after the Civil War. Dr. Dame prepared wooden markers for federal prisoners who died while being held prisoners of war. He is largely responsible for preserving the identity of more that 1,300 soldiers who remain buried in the cemetery on Lee Street.
Biography. “Dr. George Washington Dame, father of Dr. William Meade Dame, was a prominent clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal church, and for the remarkably long period of fifty-six years was rector of Camden parish, Danville, Virginia. He was at one time Professor of Latin in Hampden Sidney College, and for several years held the office of superintendent of public schools in Pittsylvania county, Virginia. He was a man of “dauntless energy, gift for teaching, utter unselfishness and great charity toward all men.” He married Mary Maria, daughter of Major Carter Page, of “The Fork,” Cumberland county, Virginia, and his wife, Lucy (Nelson) Page.” More: “Lived Danville Virginia. Came to Virginia May 1823 to be educated at Hampden-Sidney College, of which his uncle, Jonathan P. Cushing, was President. Was a professor there from 1832 to 1836. Was principal of a female academy in Lynchburg Virginia in 1838, and at Prince Edward Courthouse in 1839 and 1840. Ordained and moved to Danville Virginia in Sep 1840. Was principal of a female academy from 1840 to 1864, and rector of Camden Parish from 1840 to 1890 – fifty years.”
This collection centers on George Washington Dame (1812–1895), Episcopal minister and educator of Danville, and his wife, Mary Maria (Page) Dame (1813–1895). Letters, ca. 1850–1859, from George Dame to Mary Dame discuss his work as a minister and the operation of their household during her absence (section 2). Letters, 1846–1863, to Mary Dame from her sister, Lucy Jane (Page) Cushing (1804–1872), include information on religion and the activities of family members, as well as events in the neighborhood and beyond (section 3). The collection also contains Jonathan Cushing Dame’s (b. 1836) letters to his parents, as well as letters to Mary Dame from her other children, her nieces, and other female relatives (section 6). A letter, 1851, from Jonathan Dame offers a detailed account of the escape of one of the family’s slaves, and one, ca. 1850, from his brother, William Meade Dame (1844–1923), provides a similar account of a murder allegedly committed by a free black. A small amount of correspondence pertains to schools operated by George Dame, sometimes in conjunction with his wife, including one for girls in the 1850s (sections 2, 3, 6 and 7). The papers contain little information on the Civil War, but offer insights into family relationships and gender roles and expectations in the mid-nineteenth century.