Descendants of Slaveholder Donor Denounce Law School Name ChangeBreaking News
tags: slavery, memorials, Richmond, colleges and universities
When the University of Richmond’s Board of Trustees voted last fall to remove the name of alumnus and donor T. C. Williams from its law school, Williams’s descendants were irate. The board was following a new set of principles adopted earlier that year to ensure the namesakes of buildings, colleges and professorships lived up to the university’s values; the trustees decided that Williams, a wealthy tobacco farmer and slave owner, did not.
Richmond president Kevin Hallock broke the news to Robert Smith, Williams’s great-great-grandson and a graduate of the law school, over the phone. Smith responded with a letter denouncing the decision and accusing the university of hypocrisy and ingratitude.
“It is stunning to me that the University’s position is that there is just one acceptable monolithic narrative, and all those that don’t agree, even people born over 200 years ago, must be cancelled,” he wrote. “History and posterity will judge the University and the Board.”
Thomas C. Williams enrolled at what was then called Richmond College in 1848. He got rich making tobacco products and later served on Richmond’s Board of Trustees from 1881 to 1889. He also donated over $35,000 to the law school—a substantial sum at the time—and gave more to the university throughout his life. His descendants claim that at the time of his death, Williams was the largest donor in the university’s history.
He also relied on slave labor, according to public documents the university provided to Inside Higher Ed. Those records say that in 1860 his company “owned or actively managed” 35 enslaved men and children, and tax documents show that he personally owned three enslaved men. In 1864, Williams’s company took out a newspaper ad offering a reward for the return of two escaped slaves to a Danville farm and plant that he owned; at the time, its chief function was to manufacture supplies for the Confederate Army.