Virginia's Universities are Part of a Long Racial ReckoningBreaking News
tags: slavery, racism, Virginia, public history, colleges and universities
The latest racial reckoning here began in earnest 13 years before the murder of George Floyd, when student leaders in 2007 demanded that the nation’s second-oldest university examine its role in slavery and establish a memorial to the enslaved.
Now that memorial, shaped as a giant hearth, is rising on a corner of the William & Mary campus near Jamestown Road. Granite markers embedded in brick will commemorate at least 194 people of African descent enslaved at the school through the Civil War, including three who came with Thomas Jefferson during his time here as a student and member of the Board of Visitors.
Yet by all accounts, this reckoning will not end when the memorial is dedicated next year. If anything, scrutiny of William & Mary’s record on race has intensified on matters ranging from the names of campus landmarks to the chronic underrepresentation of students and faculty of color.
That is true for colleges and universities across America, but in Virginia, a state central to the stories of American slavery, the Confederacy and Jim Crow, the reckoning is felt almost everywhere. Debates over history and racial inequity have boiled, simmered and boiled anew in recent years at Washington and Lee University, the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute and others. They have even reached into community colleges. This year, a Virginia state board voted to rename five public two-year colleges in an effort to sever symbolic ties to enslavers and other white supremacists.
The killing of Floyd, a Black man, during a May 2020 arrest in Minneapolis outraged the nation, leading to many promises in higher education for concrete action to fight racism and make campuses more inclusive. The point is not only to swap signage, reshape landscapes and come clean on the trauma and injustices of campus, state and national history. It is also to make these schools feel like home, in the fullest sense, for all who work and study there.
“We’ve taken significant steps,” said Michaela R. Hill, 21, president of the Black Student Organization at William & Mary. She cited the recent renaming of some buildings that previously honored figures linked to the Confederacy. “You have to understand how harmful it is for Black students to go to a school and study in a building named for somebody who wouldn’t have wanted them in that space,” she said.
Hill said more can be done to promote diversity and inclusion at a public university where the Black share of enrollment — about 7 percent — does not reflect the state. With that in mind, the senior from Chesapeake, Va., who is majoring in government, works as a campus tour guide. “I wanted students of color to see a face that looks like them,” she said.
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