University of Virginia

Slavery at the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia utilized the labor of enslaved African Americans from the earliest days of its construction, in 1817, until the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Most of the university's first enslaved laborers were rented from local landowners and worked alongside whites and free blacks in performing all the tasks associated with building what the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson, called the Academical Village. In March 1825, the first students arrived and African Americans transitioned to working in the pavilions, hotels, and the Rotunda; maintaining classrooms, laboratories, and the library; ringing the bell; and serving the daily needs of students and faculty. While faculty were allowed to bring personal slaves on Grounds, as the university campus was called, students were not—a reflection, perhaps, of Jefferson's view that slavery raised the young in habits of tyranny. Students nevertheless tended to treat the university's slaves poorly, at times even attacking them. The university's response to such behavior was inconsistent. Although the men who founded the university were ambivalent about slavery, over time students and faculty alike tended to take a harder line in favor of the institution. When the slaves were freed in 1865, the faculty was not, as a group, inclined to help them. The university hired many of its former slaves to work their previous jobs but never articulated a formal policy regarding the newly freed men and women. MORE...

 

Construction

On July 18, 1817, construction of the University of Virginia, then called Central College, began when Thomas Jefferson assigned ten slaves to clear what had once been James Monroe's cornfield. On October 7, a day after the university's cornerstone was laid, the board of visitors met and authorized the hiring of laborers, which presumably included slaves, whites, and free blacks. Over the next nine years, these men cleared and leveled land; hauled, cut, and nailed timber; molded and fired bricks; transported quarried stone; and participated in nearly all other activities related to the building of the university. In November 1818, an enslaved man called Carpenter Sam began tinwork at the site and eventually contributed to the construction of two pavilions and three hotels. In May 1820, an enslaved man named Elijah began hauling quarried stone, and in February of the following year the slave William Green was hired to perform blacksmithing duties. In 1825, fifteen slaves manufactured between 800,000 and 900,000 bricks to be used in the construction of the Rotunda, a domed building that was the focal point of the Academical Village and would serve as the university's library.

The university was officially founded in January 1819, and by April of that year Jefferson, in his role as a member of the board of visitors, had agreed to the purchase of a slave for $125. However, most enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia during its construction were not owned but rather rented by the school. The university paid the slaves' owners a set fee for a set period of time, usually a year, but sometimes for as little as a day, a week, a month, or the duration of a given task. The university agreed to feed and house the slaves and to return them with adequate clothing, which amounted to clothes, underclothes, and double-soled shoes. Traditionally, the university was responsible for medical costs, although there were instances when officials attempted to negotiate out of these obligations.

At the height of building, in 1820, the university paid $1,099.08 in hiring fees. In 1821, hired slaves cost the university $1,133.73, while in 1822 that figure dropped to $866.64, and in 1825, as construction was being completed, it fell to $681. On average, the board of visitors paid owners $60 per slave per year, although the particular amounts depended on enslaved men's ages, physical conditions, and skills. The number of slaves working alongside free laborers fluctuated from year to year. In 1821, there were thirty-two, some of whom were underage. In 1822, there may have been as few as fifteen. An overseer was responsible for providing food and clothing and maintained a large vegetable garden on site. He also was charged with the supply and maintenance of all tools and carts as well as the upkeep of horses. James Harrison served as overseer from 1820 until 1821, and John Herron from 1821 until construction was completed in 1826.

Duties on Grounds

In March 1825, the first class of forty students, guided by nine professors, matriculated at the University of Virginia. At this time, the duties of enslaved laborers began to shift from construction to the maintenance of the ten pavilions, fifty-four student rooms, and Rotunda (then still under construction), as well as the care of the people who used them. In 1824, the board of visitors had prohibited incoming students, but not faculty, from bringing slaves they owned onto Grounds. This rule contrasted with the policies of other Virginia colleges, including the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where students often brought their personal slaves to wait on them. In 1840, the university even prohibited students who lived off-Grounds from keeping slaves. In 1826, as part of an attempt to keep unwanted slaves and free blacks from Grounds, the faculty instructed the university proctor to license all slaves owned and hired by the university. Enslaved men and women were required to wear the licenses on their persons. In 1829, the university instituted a regular slave patrol and continued to employ an overseer until at least 1846.

In the years before the Civil War, more than 100 enslaved men and women worked at the university at any given time. Many of them labored in the hotels, or boardinghouses, located on the Academical Village's East and West Ranges. For an annual fee of between $150 and $165, hotelkeepers provided students with three daily meals, as well as furniture, linens, firewood, ice, water, and laundry and cleaning services. Slaves owned by the hotelkeepers—and not by the university—performed all associated tasks.

In 1842, the faculty articulated thirteen specific chores to be performed by the hotelkeepers' slaves: fetching water and clean towels, making fires in winter, cleaning rooms, making beds, cleaning candlesticks, washing fireplaces (once a week), blacking andirons (once a week), carrying water to each dormitory (twice daily), washing windows (once a month), whitewashing fireplaces (twice a summer), blacking students' shoes, carrying ice, and stacking wood. Between two forty-five and three o'clock every afternoon, one slave from each hotel was made available to run errands for students. In addition, hotel slaves cooked the day's meals and cleaned up afterward. On average, there was one slave for every twenty students.

Other slaves were owned or, more rarely, hired by the university. Anatomical Lewis, possibly owned by the university as early as 1830 and as late as 1860, assisted the anatomy professor in what the historian Catherine S. Neale has described as "a sordid job and poor living conditions," making him "an outcast of the community." The enslaved man Lewis Commodore had been hired out to the university for a number of years when school officials, learning that his master intended to sell him, purchased him on July 18, 1832, for $580. Commodore rang the Rotunda's so-called Medway Bell, which marked the day's schedule, until 1847, when the duty passed to Henry Martin, a free black. Beginning in 1834, Commodore also opened the library each morning and tended to lecture rooms, ensuring they were tidy and warm. In 1851, the faculty determined that he had "repeatedly and grossly neglected his duties," a dereliction possibly related to his reported abuse of alcohol, and relieved Commodore of his responsibilities. He was then sold.

Enslaved workers lived in various makeshift quarters. Until 1834, when slaves were prohibited from residing in the Rotunda, Lewis Commodore likely lived in a room on that building's ground floor. A brick building near the gates of the university housed slaves until 1838, when it was appropriated for an infirmary. Faculty-owned slaves often lived in the basements of the pavilions or in unclaimed rooms, while others, including Anatomical Lewis, may have occupied structures built in the university's gardens. Hotel slaves likely found space in their respective hotels.

The quality and timeliness of the hotel slaves' service were often the subject of complaints by students and faculty. Slaves were charged with neglecting to clean rooms and not completing their work quickly or subserviently enough. In some cases, hotelkeepers responded by blaming their slaves' poor health, which may have been due to poor diet and living conditions. Many slaves also may have had more work than they could accomplish in a timely manner. The historian Philip Alexander Bruce, writing in 1920 but likely reflecting attitudes from the previous century, blamed in part "slipshod slave service" for frequent outbreaks of disease, including typhoid fever, especially on the East Range: "The inefficient services of that day furnished by lazy, untrained slaves, who had been hired out only too often because their characters were bad, was an additional cause of these outbursts of distemper." School administrators generally settled such complaints by instructing hotelkeepers to supervise their enslaved laborers more closely.

Treatment by Students

Students often treated slaves rudely, at times even verbally and physically assaulting them. The university's response to such behavior was inconsistent. These young men, two-thirds of whom were nineteen years old or younger, mostly came from southern, slave-owning families. As such, "they had been reared under a system tending to nourish in them unusual independence of character in spite of their immaturity," according to the historian Bruce. He went on to explain that "the free life of the plantation and the presence of slaves created an unconscious dislike of restrictions not imposed by parental right." This "haughtiness of spirit" often manifested in disrespectful actions toward faculty and slaves alike.

In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson anticipated this problem, writing that the children of slave-owners, "thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities." But in separating students from their personal slaves, he could not separate them from the institution more broadly or from its attendant cruelties and violence.

In one instance, a student threw bread at a hotel slave and received a reprimand; in another, a student threw a glass and received a week's suspension. In 1835, the university suspended a student for two weeks for hitting a hotel slave. Four years later, an intoxicated student named Frederick Hall fired a pistol and attacked a hotel slave with a bowie knife. Although no one was injured, Hall was expelled. On November 13, 1837, a group of rowdy students fired pistols on the Lawn and then beat the bell ringer Lewis Commodore, possibly in protest of the school's strict time schedules. In a rare move, the university allowed Commodore to testify and he identified one of his assailants.

Not all attacks were punished, however. On February 24, 1838, two students, Franklin English and Madison McAfee, were attempting to disperse a group of free blacks when they were approached by Fielding, a slave owned by the mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle. English and McAfee turned on Fielding. They administered "a severe and inhuman beating," according to faculty meeting notes, and when the professor intervened "for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered," he was verbally assaulted. English, McAfee, and Bonnycastle—but not Fielding—were asked to testify before the Faculty Committee, which referred the matter to civil authorities. Bonnycastle died in 1840, before any action was taken.

On April 23, 1850, three students, George H. Hardy, Armistead C. Eliason, and James E. Montandon, allegedly encountered a seventeen-year-old slave girl in Charlottesville, took her to a field, and raped her. Three other students caught them in the act, and the university expelled the young men and referred the case to the civil authorities. The students fled town and no charges were filed.

In 1856, a student named Noble B. Noland confessed to beating unconscious a slave girl, aged ten or eleven. She had wandered onto Grounds and, after being confronted by Noland, had not replied with appropriate deference. The girl's owner, a hotelkeeper named Miss Terrell, intervened, but Noland returned later in the day, when Miss Terrell was no longer present, and attacked the girl. Although Terrell did not lodge a complaint, the Faculty Committee called Noland to testify on May 2. He told the 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." His actions, he said, 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, which at first had recommended Noland be expelled, reconsidered. He was not punished.

Issue of Slavery on Grounds

A few of the University of Virginia's founders were ambivalent about the institution of slavery. Most famous among them was Thomas Jefferson, but the first board of visitors also included James Madison, James Monroe, and John Hartwell Cocke, who freed a couple of his own slaves and then, as a member of the American Colonization Society, paid their passage to Africa.

In 1832, following Nat Turner's Rebellion and in the midst of the General Assembly's slavery debates, the Jefferson Society, a student-debating club, selected Merritt Robinson to draft a speech on the occasion of Jefferson's birthday. Robinson's speech, which argued for the emancipation of Virginia slaves, was approved by the faculty chairman, George Tucker, who himself was ambivalent about slavery. A former congressman, Tucker had authored an antislavery novel, The Valley of Shenandoah (1824), and supported colonization before changing his mind and deciding that slavery would die out without the intervention of politicians. Unlike Tucker, however, the rest of the faculty strongly disapproved of Robinson's speech and prohibited the Jefferson Society from ever again orating on any point of state or national controversy.

Most students supported slavery and states' rights. In 1850, a number of students founded the Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, proclaiming, according to the historian Bruce, "that they witnessed with regret the encroachments which the States of the North, hostile to slavery, were constantly making upon the rights, the interests, and the institutions of the commonwealth of the South."

A number of professors promoted proslavery ideology. In "Essay on Liberty and Slavery," published in 1857, mathematics professor Albert T. Bledsoe argued that slavery was a positive good. George Frederick Holmes, a faculty member from 1857 until his death in 1897, wrote in support of Aristotle's thesis that some men were born to be masters and some to be slaves.

During the Civil War, a university professor served as one of Virginia's most outspoken proponents of slavery. Basil L. Gildersleeve, a professor of Greek and Hebrew from 1856 until 1875, penned sixty-three editorials for the Daily Richmond Examiner between October 1863 and August 1864. In "Sambo the Ass", published on April 5, 1864, Gildersleeve compared enslaved African Americans to the ass in an old saying attributed to Mohammed upon being offered chariots of fire at the gates of heaven: "I am used to my ass. I don't want to change. I will either go to heaven on my ass or I will not go to heaven at all." In another essay, published on April 18, 1864, Gildersleeve warned against miscegenation, writing that "it is to this watchful care [not to mix races] that we owe the supremacy of the white man on the continent, and that we look down so proudly on the mixed population of Mexico and the twenty-two cross-breeds of Lima."

Freedom

On May 8, 1865, following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and a few months prior to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment freeing all enslaved men and women, university faculty members met at the home of their chairman, Socrates Maupin. According to notes from the meeting, the prevailing sentiment was that former slaves deserved no assistance from their former masters, although Professor John B. Minor wrote privately of his concern for "the poor hapless creatures." The board of visitors met on July 5 and 6 but in this and future meetings declined to articulate any plans for its former slaves. Instead, the university's enslaved laborers likely relocated to already-existing African American or integrated communities such as Canada, just south of Grounds, while often retaining their jobs. They now worked as contract employees but under the same poor working conditions.

Time Line

  • July 18, 1817 - Thomas Jefferson assigns ten slaves to clear what had once been James Monroe's cornfield. This marks the beginning of construction on what will become the University of Virginia.
  • October 6, 1817 - The cornerstone is laid for Pavilion VII, the first building of what will become the University of Virginia.
  • October 7, 1817 - The Central College (later the University of Virginia) board of visitors authorizes the hiring of laborers, including slaves, whites, and free blacks.
  • November 1818 - An enslaved man called Carpenter Sam begins tinwork at the construction site of Central College (later the University of Virginia) and eventually contributes to the construction of two pavilions and three hotels.
  • April 1819 - Thomas Jefferson, in his role as a member of the University of Virginia board of visitors, agrees to the purchase of a slave for $125.
  • 1820 - The University of Virginia pays $1,099.08 in fees to hire enslaved construction workers.
  • 1820–1821 - James Harrison serves as overseer at the construction site of the University of Virginia.
  • May 1820 - An enslaved man named Elijah begins hauling quarried stone at the construction site of the University of Virginia.
  • 1821–1826 - John Herron serves as overseer at the construction site of the University of Virginia.
  • 1821 - The University of Virginia pays $1,133.73 in fees to hire thirty-two enslaved construction workers.
  • February 1821 - An enslaved man named William Green is hired to perform blacksmithing duties at the construction site of the University of Virginia.
  • 1822 - The University of Virginia pays $866.64 in fees to hire fifteen enslaved construction workers.
  • October 4–5, 1822 - The University of Virginia board of visitors resolves that "no student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder, keep a servant, horse or dog."
  • 1825 - The University of Virginia pays $681 in fees to hire enslaved construction workers.
  • 1825 - Fifteen enslaved men manufacture between 800,000 and 900,000 bricks to be used in the construction of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
  • March 7, 1825 - The first class of forty students, guided by nine professors, matriculates at the University of Virginia.
  • February 5, 1826 - On behalf of the University of Virginia faculty, Professor John P. Emmet instructs the proctor "to License the Servants waiting upon the Students; and that he permit no person to act in that capacity who has not obtained such a license."
  • June 2, 1829 - A University of Virginia professor, after being disturbed in the night "by a noise made by negroes passing thro the University," proposes that the school institute a regular slave patrol.
  • April 13, 1832 - On the occasion of Thomas Jefferson's birthday, Merritt Robinson, a student at the University of Virginia and member of the Jefferson Society debating club, drafts a speech arguing for the emancipation of Virginia's slaves. A disapproving faculty prohibits the society from orating on any point of state or national controversy.
  • July 18, 1832 - The University of Virginia board of visitors purchases the enslaved man Lewis Commodore for $580.
  • July 8, 1834 - The University of Virginia board of visitors states that "those rooms [in the Rotunda] after being properly cleansed, [need] to be locked up, or put to other desirable uses," effectively prohibiting their use as residences for enslaved laborers.
  • November 11, 1834 - The University of Virginia board of visitors gives the enslaved man Lewis Commodore "a general order to open the Library at the appointed hour, without waiting for [the librarian's] arrival."
  • November 13, 1837 - A group of rowdy University of Virginia students fire pistols on the Lawn and then beat the bell ringer Lewis Commodore, possibly in protest of the school's strict time schedules. Commodore is allowed to testify before the Faculty Committee and identifies one of his assailants.
  • February 24, 1838 - Two University of Virginia students, Franklin English and Madison McAfee, beat the slave Fielding and his owner, the mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle. They are not punished by the university, which refers the case to the civil authorities.
  • July 7, 1840 - The University of Virginia board of visitors states that "no Student residing out of the University shall, without leave of the Faculty, keep a servant, horse or dog, upon pain of any of the major or minor punishments."
  • October 1, 1842 - The faculty of the University of Virginia identifies thirteen tasks to be regularly completed by the enslaved men and women owned or rented by the hotelkeepers who run the boardinghouses on the East and West Ranges.
  • 1847 - The responsibility for ringing the Medway Bell at the University of Virginia passes from the enslaved man Lewis Commodore to the free black Henry Martin.
  • 1850 - A group of University of Virginia students found the Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, intent on defending states' rights and the interests of slave-owners.
  • April 23, 1850 - Three University of Virginia students allegedly encounter a seventeen-year-old enslaved girl in Charlottesville and rape her in a field. They are tried by the Faculty Committee and expelled, but flee town before facing civil charges.
  • December 30, 1851 - The faculty at the University of Virginia relieves the enslaved man Lewis Commodore of all his responsibilities, determining that they have been "repeatedly and grossly neglected." He is sold.
  • May 2, 1856 - Noble B. Noland, a University of Virginia student, testifies before the Faculty Committee after beating unconscious an enslaved girl, aged ten or eleven. The committee originally recommends expulsion but instead decides not to punish Noland.
  • April 5, 1864 - University of Virginia professor Basil L. Gildersleeve publishes an essay in the Daily Richmond Examiner comparing enslaved African Americans to the ass in an old saying, attributed to Mohammed upon being offered chariots of fire at the gates of heaven: "I will either go to heaven on my ass or I will not go to heaven at all."
  • April 18, 1864 - In an essay, Basil L. Gildersleeve, a University of Virginia professor of Greek and Hebrew, speaks out against so-called miscegenation, claiming that to prevent it is to guarantee white supremacy.
  • May 8, 1865 - Members of the University of Virginia faculty meet at the home of their chairman, Socrates Maupin, to discuss the future of the university. According to notes from the meeting, the prevailing sentiment is that former slaves deserve no assistance from their former masters.
  • July 5–6, 1865 - The University of Virginia board of visitors meets, but in this and future meetings declines to articulate any plans for its former slaves.

References

Further Reading
Bruce, Philip Alexander. History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man. 5 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1920–1922.
Grizzard, Frank E. Jr. "Documentary History of the Construction of the Buildings at the University of Virginia, 1817–1828." PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1996.
Neale, Catherine S. "Slaves, Freedpeople, and the University of Virginia." BA honors thesis, University of Virginia, 2006.
Schulman, Gayle M. "Slaves at the University of Virginia." Paper presented to the African American Genealogy Group of Charlottesville/Albemarle, Charlottesville, VA, May 2003.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Wolfe, B. Slavery at the University of Virginia. (2016, February 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slavery_at_the_University_of_Virginia.

  • MLA Citation:

    Wolfe, Brendan. "Slavery at the University of Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Feb. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 21, 2013 | Last modified: February 2, 2016


Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.