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Five VA Colleges Could Make Reparations For Use of Enslaved Labor

A bustiling outdoor scene
People roam through Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park campus. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Five Virginia colleges would be required to make reparations for using enslaved people’s labor to build their institutions, under a bill currently awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

The proposal from Del. David Reid (D-Loudon) requires the five public colleges - the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute, Longwood University and the College of William and Mary - to begin the process of researching and memorializing their past use of enslaved labor. All of the colleges or their predecessors were built prior to the end of the Civil War. The schools would also be required to take action on the research using their own money.

Reid said he didn’t initially intend to wade into the national conversation around reparations for slavery. He says he was inspired by his Virginia colleagues' police reform efforts, and his own experience growing up in poverty and being the first in his family to attend college.

 “My family was never enslaved, so I will never have that as a point of reference for an experience, but I can try to be empathetic and say, ‘I know that education that helped my family, and helped me,’” Reid said. “I want to be able to make those educational opportunities accessible for other people, especially the ancestors of those individuals who helped make those universities successful.”

As it was initially proposed, House Bill 1980 would have required the five colleges create scholarship programs for the descendants of identified individuals who labored on the campus. But conversations with university representatives made Reid realize that each institution has a unique history, with different levels of documentation about their early days.

“While UVA has done a really good job of being able to identify the 4 to 5,000 enslaved individuals who worked at their university, other universities like Longwood have not started the process or only had marginal information,” Reid said.

The bill bans universities from using state money or raising tuition to fund the reparations program.

The University of Virginia is the farthest along of the five schools in researching and identifying the enslaved people who were forced into helping build the school.

Former UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan created the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University in 2013. The commission combed through research and documentation at the university and held community listening sessions, producing a final report in 2018. The report said researchers were able to identify some of the up to 5,000 enslaved individuals who labored at UVA, though many appeared in university documents as “labourer,” “servant” or “boy.”

“Much of the history of the University of Virginia is hidden in phrases like hands, labourers, and set at work,” the report stated. “From constructing and maintaining the buildings to feeding and caring for the faculty and students, enslaved people brought into existence and later sustained the institution.”

The College of William and Mary has likewise already started the research process. It is a member of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, founded by UVA. In 2009, William & Mary also started The Lemon Project, an initiative supporting research into the institution’s past and named after a man once enslaved by the college.

The projects started by UVA and William & Mary do not include scholarships or other financial reparations, although it was included as a suggestion in the UVA President’s Commission report. Officials with both schools declined to comment for this story.

For some colleges in the program, doing the historical research may be more difficult, if not impossible. Longwood University was originally founded as the Farmville Female Seminary in 1839. The Commonwealth of Virginia took over operations of the seminary in 1884 and named it the State Female Normal School.

“Prior to 1884, we don’t have any institutional records here that shed light on the use of enslaved labor,” said Larissa Smith, a civil rights-era historian and provost at Longwood. 

“That is work that we’ll have to engage in and kind of do that reconstructive work.”

Longwood has been working to research and comes to terms with its past, just mostly focused on the 20th Century. The school entered into a covenant with the Moton Museum in 2015 to ensure it could operate and expand in the future.

The Moton Museum is housed in the former Robert Russa Moton High School, which was at the center of the school desegregation movement in Prince Edward County and the country. The most famous student to organize a walk out at the African American high school was civil rights activist Barbara Johns.

More recently, Longwood launched the Bicentennial Initiative focused on engaging students and faculty in research into the institution’s history.

“So we have been engaged in this research and commemoration work for some time now, and we see this bill as sort of the next stage of that work,” he said.

For their part, VCU’s Board of Visitors recently voted to start the renaming process for buildings named after Confederate leaders. A spokesperson for the university refused to comment on House Bill 1980, saying VCU does not typically discuss pending legislation.

The five colleges named in the bill are expected to work with the State Council of Higher Education to tailor the program to their communities. The guidelines for the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program must be finalized by July 1, 2022.

Del. Reid said he hopes the bill sends the signal to the universities that, whether they want to or not, Virginia is ready to start making reparations for past harms committed by public institutions.

“As Senator [Louise] Lucas pointed out when this bill was going through her committee: If the universities had thought that this was a priority, they would already be working it and some are not,” Reid said. “It’s an opportunity for us to say we think this should be a priority and here’s a way to move forward.”