Universities from Brown in Rhode Island to Furman in South Carolina have commissions in place to study Race, Slavery and Monuments. One institution where millions of dollars is being spent to make sure everyone has a say in how universities remember and mark the past is the University of Virginia.
On a warm comfortable night last fall, dozens of people sang and weaved their way through the north side of the University of Virginia cemetery, to pay their respects. The unmarked grave shafts of 67 African American slaves were discovered just six years ago. One year after the discovery of the unmarked graves, the University of Virginia formed its President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.
Ervin Jordan is an Associate Professor and Research Archivist at UVa and sits on the commission.
“I was initially skeptical, because I have been on at least 20 similar things like this at the university, the years I’ve been here. And they all just fall by the wayside," said Jordan. "They become defunct, they stop having meetings.”
Jordan says he was assured that wouldn’t happen this time. And he was promised the commission would have a budget. And it does. $6 million dollars is being spent on a “Freedom Ring” memorial to commemorate the contributions of enslaved workers at UVa.
The "Freedom Ring" is expected to be completed in 2019. It will be near the university’s iconic “Rotunda,” designed by Thomas Jefferson. There’s a life-size statue of America’s third president inside. Outside, there used to be large tablets, fixed to the brick “Rotunda,” honoring the university’s Confederate war dead.
"I wish I could have been here that day to see them actually take it down but the University did not announce that in advance," said Jordan. "It was not announced in advance.”
Several universities across the south are grappling with their racist past. Vanderbilt University ended up paying United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) $1.2 million in a court settlement to remove the word “Confederate” off its Confederate Memorial residence hall. UDC presented Vanderbilt with a $50,000 gift, back in the 1930s, to construct the hall.
In 2015, UNC Chapel Hill trustees voted to change the name on one of its residence halls from Saunders Hall to “Carolina Hall.” William Saunders was believed to be a Ku Klux Klan leader.
But still, protests continue over “Silent Sam,” the prominent Confederate statue erected at Carolina in 1913. UNC leaders say a law passed in the General Assembly three years ago prevents them from removing it.
Meanwhile, just days before classes convened last fall at Duke University, the school removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the front of Duke Chapel. Like at Virginia, the statue was taken down in wee hours of the morning. Both universities took action shortly after a woman was killed at a white supremacists rally and counter demonstration in Charlottesville.
Thavolia Glymph is a professor of History and African American Studies at Duke University. She has organized a two-day symposium at Duke titled, “American Universities, Monuments and the Legacies of Slavery.”
“I think especially for universities in the South, that we have a special obligation to explore these difficult pasts," said Glymph.
Glymph says it’s an obligation that rises out of where we are and how we came to be. Who should replace the Lee statue at Duke Chapel?
“My personal opinion is that it should be left with no replacement," said Glymph. "Because I think it becomes a more powerful teaching tool. And when we have students coming to visit who are thinking about Duke, why is that space there. If we put something there, they are not going to ask that question.”
So far, there are close to 40 universities with special commissions or working groups studying slavery across the U.S.