[Marxism] How Universities Used Enslaved People

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 12 06:34:52 MST 2019

Chronicle of Higher Education
How Universities Used Enslaved People
By Marc Parry NOVEMBER 10, 2019  PREMIUM

George Long, a professor of Latin and Greek at the newly created 
University of Virginia, was serving tea in his faculty quarters when 
students lobbed a bottle filled with urine through the window.

The trouble soon got worse. The next night, October 1, 1825, at least 14 
students put on masks and rioted on the central lawn. They shouted 
xenophobic epithets at their mostly European professors. They abused an 
enslaved person belonging to a faculty member, George Tucker. When 
Tucker and a faculty colleague confronted them, students attacked the 
professors with bottles, sticks, and a brick.

The unrest arose in response to a decree from the university’s founder, 
Thomas Jefferson, that students didn’t need summer vacation. It 
endangered the future of an institution that had already caused 
controversy due to its lack of commitment to religion — no chapel, no 
public prayers, no theology professors. When the riot broke out, critics 
went "ballistic," says Alan Taylor, a history professor at Virginia, who 
writes about the episode in a new book about the university’s early 
history, Thomas Jefferson’s Education (W.W. Norton).

Adding to Jefferson’s woes: His relative, Wilson Miles Cary, a dissolute 
young man whose education had been financed by the sale of enslaved 
people, was the ringleader of the student riot.

"It shines a very bright but negative light on the university at a 
critical moment in the first year of its existence," says Taylor, a 
two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who studies the early American republic.

Taylor has been shining his own harsh light at another key moment: the 
university’s bicentennial. In those festivities, which ran from 2017 to 
2019, UVa touted itself as heir to Jefferson’s belief in the 
"illimitable freedom of the human mind." In his book, Taylor casts UVa’s 
birth as a failed experiment in reshaping a society steeped in human 
bondage. He holds up Cary’s riotous behavior as indicative of how hard 
it would be to transform the scions of elite Virginia families into the 
progressive reformers of Jefferson’s dreams.

The Chronicle spoke with Taylor about Jefferson’s vision for higher 
education, the relationships between students and slaves on the campus, 
and the reception Taylor has received for exposing UVa’s sordid history.


Q: You arrived at UVa in 2014. Why were you interested in studying its 

A: Partly it was that I was about to start a job then at UVa and the 
university was approaching its bicentennial. I was involved in some of 
the bicentennial preparations, and so it became clear to me that I 
needed to know more about the origins of the university if I was going 
to speak publicly about that. And then also we just live in times where 
public funding for education is controversial, and in general has been 
curtailed compared to past levels. And I wanted to understand the 
historical backdrop behind public engagement with education and why it 
might be receding now.

Q: What did Jefferson hope to achieve by creating the university?

A: Jefferson was a brilliant man capable of great insights but also a 
man who was very sensitive to criticism. And so he wanted to transform 
Virginia, but he didn’t really want to confront directly powerful men 
within Virginia who were committed to slavery and committed to limiting 
the political participation of poorer whites. And so his way to resolve 
his own contradiction was to create an institution that he expected 
would train the next generation of leaders in Virginia and would give 
them a broader, more cosmopolitan perspective, which he believed would 
lead them to want to make the kinds of reforms that Jefferson longed to 
make but had failed to make in his own lifetime. In particular, he’s 
hoping that they will democratize Virginia — increase political 
participation and access on the part of poorer whites. He also hopes 
that they will adopt a program of gradually emancipating Virginia’s 
slaves but also to then deport all the freed people to Africa. The book 
is about why it is that these young men and this institution disappoint 
Jefferson’s hopes.

Q: And why is that?

A: Well, it turns out Jefferson has an exaggerated confidence in the 
power of institutions and rules and architecture to reshape human nature 
and to reshape society. The young men who are raised in these privileged 
families are not going to be reshaped by this institution in ways that 
will lead them to criticize and reform a way of life that has been to 
the benefit of their families.

Long after Jefferson’s death, the university remains quite a troubled 
place. And it never fulfills Jefferson’s aspirations for reforming 
Virginia. Instead, the University of Virginia will become a bastion of 
conservatism that wants to preserve the Virginia way of life against any 
kind of pressure from the outside world, particularly Northern states, 
until the 20th century.

Q: You characterize UVa as "an especially complex and crowded 
plantation." Could you describe how the relationships between students 
and slaves unfolded in this environment?

A: There are approximately 100 enslaved people living in and around the 
grounds of the university, who are essential to its operations. They do 
not belong to the university. They belong in some cases to faculty 
members. In more cases they belong to people called the hotel keepers, 
who are providing the meals and room cleaning and other services for the 
students. The young men assume that any black person is subject to their 
commands. They believe that their standing as a white man in their 
society depends upon always asserting their honor by dishonoring 
enslaved people who show any form of resistance.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: One of them is where the young men decide that a 16-year-old girl 
that they’ve had sexual relations with, who is enslaved and belongs to 
an entrepreneur who lives on the margins of the university, that she has 
given them a venereal disease. So they feel entitled to go and beat her 
up. And then the owner complains that his property has been damaged. So 
the faculty get involved. And meanwhile the young men have decided to 
try to head off trouble by going and giving the owner some money. The 
faculty announce that they’re basically content with this resolution. 
And there is no compensation that’s provided to the abused young woman.

Q: Did researching this book make you see the institution in a different 

A: Sure. You can look at this beautiful architecture, and you can see it 
aesthetically. Or you can also look at it and think about it socially. 
What was it designed to do originally? There are buildings called 
pavilions, which faculty lived in. There were the dorm rooms, which were 
in between them. And then behind them was a second row, which had what 
were called the hotels and other dorm rooms. And in between were various 
gardens, which are quite lovely today but which in the past were kind of 
workshop areas which would have shanties where enslaved people would 
live. Or in the basements of these pavilions, enslaved people would live 
in very dank conditions.

I’m not singling out the University of Virginia to say this is a 
uniquely evil institution. Slavery affected every aspect of life in the 
early republic. We make a mistake if we think of universities in the 
early republic as some sort of ivory towers that are abstracted from 
society. The troubles that UVa had you can also find at the College of 
William & Mary, the University of North Carolina, the University of 
Georgia, University of South Carolina, Princeton.

Q: That said, your account of UVa’s early years as this "den of 
dissipation," as you refer to it, might be the most unflattering 
portrait of campus life I have ever seen. Do people there hate that 
you’re emphasizing this history?

A: The university has done a very good job, through its own commission, 
to investigate its past. They’ve been encouraging because they want a 
full accounting of the history. They’re building a monument right now to 
the enslaved workers there. So I’ve gotten nothing but positives from 
the administration, from students, from faculty members. And all of my 
direct engagement with alumni has been positive. But I wrote a piece 
about Jefferson and slavery in the alumni magazine, and certainly if you 
read the online comments, there is some pushback from people who would 
like to have the older story told about the university, and not this 
newer one that includes slavery.

Q: You mentioned the memorial. UVa also named a dorm in honor of 
enslaved laborers who worked on the campus. And they’ve begun searching 
for the descendants of those enslaved people. Is that enough? How should 
Virginia and other colleges with similar histories respond to those 
connections to slavery now?

A: Recovering the past and creating a public presence for that past in 
the form of a monument — while that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. 
What’s sufficient would be something that would help African Americans 
in general to feel that the University of Virginia is theirs as well as 
it is anybody else’s who is a citizen of Virginia, and not to feel that 
it is alien territory. I don’t believe we’ve reached that point.

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