At the University of Virginia, remembering also means confronting flawed past

Alumni descended on campus for its bicentennial celebration weeks after white nationalists violently protested in Charlottesville.

In August, white nationalists marched on the university's lawn en route to the Rotunda. On Friday, UVa. began its bicentennial there. (Credit: Rex Hammock via Creative Commons)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — As the University of Virginia ushered its bicentennial with a vibrant, performance filled weekend, university leaders also paused to acknowledge a history that didn’t always merit celebration.

The first of thousands of alumni who descended the Charlottesville campus on Friday attended a ceremony commemorating the laying of the university’s cornerstone that was overseen by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe two centuries ago.

Speakers extolled the institution’s legacy of community and service, but also underscored the importance of critically examining a flawed past that involved the injury or exclusion of African Americans and other minority groups. Jefferson, the university’s founder, also owned slaves.

“The story of UVa. is the story of America. Born from a bolt of idealistic vision, risen now to a position of global prominence, imperfect in its history, yet perfectly optimistic as we look to its future,” said university president Teresa A. Sullivan.

The commemoration took place weeks after white nationalists wielding tiki torches protested on school grounds, chanting phrases such as “You will not replace us.”

It also arrived during a period in which the University of Virginia, like other colleges, is publicly reckoning with how to acknowledge and remember its multi-layered history. In June, Board of Visitors members approved designs for a circular stone wall that will memorialize and acknowledge the sacrifices of enslaved laborers.

“The most incredible, the most unbelievable thing that we could do, is to truly walk hand in hand with our history”
-Bryanna Miller, class of 2018

Speakers on Friday told of the university’s story in three parts, moving through its past, present and future.

Marcus Martin, the university’s vice president and chief diversity officer, reminded the university community that slaves were fundamental to the college’s conception and are an inseparable part of its history. 

“The foundation for the cornerstone and building and sustaining the university depended upon the enslaved,” said Martin. “Resilient, despite involuntary servitude, broken families, disparity of power and privilege, being gifted from one individual to another, not being free.”

Martin, a product of segregated Virginia schools in the 1950s and 60s, also noted that his high school counselor didn’t present the University of Virginia to him as an option as he was applying for college.

John T. Casteen, a former university president and professor, credited African Americans, women and foreign students for contributing their unique identities and knowledge to the school’s fabric, for having preserved “our university as a community and as a public treasure.”

As Bryanna Miller, a student member of the Board of Visitors, looked to the university’s future, she spoke of the value in facing uncomfortable truths about its past.

“The most incredible, the most unbelievable thing that we could do, is to truly walk hand in hand with our history,” Miller said. “That’s a lot harder, I think, than just increasing the diversity of the student body or coming up with another scientific achievement.”

The university is also showcasing artifacts as a way to relay its story. A museum exhibition called The University of Virginia in 100 Objects, seeks to document the school’s existence from an array of perspectives.

It features objects that include founder Thomas Jefferson’s walking stick, a special-edition Barbie doll dressed in university clothing and, more seriously, a photograph of a slave on the university’s campus and the lawsuit that forced the university to admit women in 1970, according to UVA Today.

Molly Schwartzburg, special collections curator, described the exhibit as the university’s most ambitious.

“It tells very powerful stories, some of which will leave visitors with mixed feelings about specific moments in the University’s history,” Schwartzburg told UVA Today. “It also raises important questions about the selective process of writing history – what is brought to the forefront and what is left out.”

A man carries a flag bearing a swastika in Charlottesville. (Courtesy of Moses Apostaticus via Creative Commons)

As the University of Virginia reflected on how to honestly account for prior wrongs as part of its bicentennial weekend, reminders of more recent racially charged events on campus and in the surrounding city were abound. Signs that read, in capital letters, “No home for hate here,” hung from student residences facing the lawn that white nationalists marched on to reach the university’s famed Rotunda during an Aug. 11 nighttime protest.

The next day, white nationalists clashed violently with counter protestors in Charlottesville streets during a “Unite the Right” rally that ultimately became deadly.

Governor Terry McAuliffe referenced those events directly, commending the university community for condemning the terror that visited the campus.

He said, “When folks came here with their torches and their hatred, the University of Virginia students stood up and said, ‘no, we will not tolerate that.'”

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