The University of Richmond released A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond, the latest in its critical study of its campus history regarding slavery. Other universities around the country are similarly looking for ways to study and acknowledge their past ties to slavery.
During my senior year of high school, my mom and I packed the car on a weekend in early October and drove from Pennsylvania to Virginia to tour colleges I was interested in attending. I remember the pride the University of Virginia student tour guide took while pointing out the Rotunda, which Thomas Jefferson designed “as the architectural and academic heart of the University’s community of scholars,” according to UVA’s website. As the tour continued, other historical facts were thrown in, including Jefferson’s founding of the school in 1819 and the secret societies that have been active for over a century — something I appreciated as a history lover.
Similarly, I remember walking through the Sir Christopher Wren Building when I toured the College of William & Mary. The building is the oldest standing college building in the United States, according to William & Mary’s website. My tour guide, a goofy senior whose claim to fame was founding the school’s cheese club, also highlighted how William & Mary is the second oldest college in the U.S. It was founded in 1693 by a royal charter from King William III and Queen Mary II of England. But, technically William & Mary was planned before Harvard University was built, so in a way, William & Mary counted as the oldest.
At Georgetown University, the tour guide stressed the importance of the school’s history as the oldest Catholic and Jesuit college in the U.S. Even the interesting facts woven into the tour were full of history, such as how Georgetown’s colors were made gray and blue to celebrate the end of the Civil War. The war led to a drop in enrollment that nearly closed the school. Even the school’s more modern history, like the adoption of Jack the Bulldog as its mascot in the 1960s, was mentioned.
What I remember most about the University of Richmond tour was how I fell in love with the campus, especially the view of the lake from Tyler Haynes Commons and the red brick of all the buildings. But interestingly, I do not remember anything about the history of the school being mentioned. It might have been, but I do not remember the same passion for the history of the campus coming through on the tour as I remember hearing on the tours of other nearby colleges.
After emailing Lauren Bennett, assistant director of admission at UR, on Jan. 6, I learned that tour guides are encouraged to speak about the history of our campus at their discretion.
“Speaking to tours prior to COVID, there are many different points of UR's history that tour guides speak to on their tours, and it truly depends on the tour guide which pieces they highlight,” Bennett wrote in an email. “The great thing about tours at UR is that they are not scripted, so each tour will look a little different depending on the tour guide and the stories they choose to tell.
“Some tour guides might go into depth about the Robins statue while others might talk about Ryland Hall and how many of the surrounding bricks are from our original campus.”
Following the release of the findings on the Westham Burying Ground where enslaved persons' remains are suspected to be buried, Bennett wrote that she had worked with the lead tour guide team to implement information about the burial ground on future tours. In this semester’s tour guide manual, there is a section about the finding of the burial ground, as well as additional resources for tour guides to reference during tours, she wrote. However, it is up to the student tour guide whether to include any historical information as tours at UR are not scripted, she wrote.
According to “Knowledge of This Cannot Be Hidden: A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond,” written and researched by Lauranett Lee, visiting lecturer in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, and Shelby Driskill, a School of Professional and Continuing Studies student, there were five instances where proof of the existence of the burial grounds was ignored by school officials.
First, in 1912, correspondence between James Taylor Ellyson, president of the board of trustees at Richmond College, and Warren Manning, landscape designer and adviser for the then-new campus, showed that both parties were aware that “at least twenty” graves were in the center of where a road Manning planned to build would be. An examination of three topographic maps showed that this road is now Richmond Way.
“In a letter to Ellyson, Manning proposed moving the graves that were in the line of the proposed road to ‘some cemetery’ and also suggested the college remove all human remains for fear of future ‘student pranks,’” according to the report.
Second, a 1912 survey sketch at the Library of Virginia marks where the boundaries of the burial ground lie, labeling it with the word “Graveyard,” according to the report.
Then, in 1935, Howard Harlan, a UVA doctoral candidate who was studying the African American community of Ziontown near UR, inserted “an undated account of laborers working in close proximity to the [Westhampton Lake] who uncovered a ‘pile of bones and skulls’” into his published study entitled “Zion Town: A Study in Human Ecology,” which he tied to UR’s land’s history of enslavement, according to the report.
An article published by the Richmond News Leader in 1947 describes how the remains of two people were unearthed during the widening of Richmond Way between the Steam Plant and Puryear Hall. According to the report, the article linked the people buried to people enslaved on UR’s land — a claim not disputed in an editorial on the subject published the next day, which was written by Douglas Southall Freeman, the paper’s editor and also a historian and UR’s rector.
Between 1955 and 1956, workers once again uncovered graves while expanding the steam tunnel system between the Steam Plant and Richmond Hall. An oral history from 1993 by Ed Boynton, the supervising engineer during 1955 to 1956, describes how the remains were possibly reburied somewhere else by UR, according to the report.
When UR used Naeva Geophysics Inc. to conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey aiming to find additional graves on Sept. 16, 2019, the results were inconclusive. The survey was unable to locate any graves because of conditions such as “impenetrability and acidity of the clay soil and a history of ground disturbance, including the reported removals of remains in previous years,” according to the report.
Other universities are looking for ways to best study and memorialize their past ties to slavery. Many of these schools belong to the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, which was created and is led by UVA. According to UVA’s website, “[Consortium] member schools are all committed to research, acknowledgment, and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.”
Alongside the research being done into its history of slavery, UVA built a memorial, which was finished in 2020, in honor of the 4,000 to 5,000 enslaved people who lived and worked at UVA between 1817 and 1865, according to UVA’s website. The design team Howeler + Yoon used community feedback to help guide its design of the memorial, which includes 4,000 memory marks in honor of the enslaved laborers, according to UVA’s website.
William & Mary also actively engages with its history of slavery. After student and faculty at William & Mary called for a full investigation into the school’s links to slavery in 2009, “the Board of Visitors acknowledged that the university had ‘owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War; and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era,’” according to its website.
In response, the Board of Visitors established the The Lemon Project to “rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by William & Mary through action or inaction,” according to William & Mary’s website. The project is named after a man who was enslaved at William & Mary, although little is known about him — a choice intended to represent what is known and unknown about the enslaved people who were owned by William & Mary, according to the website.
As of February 2019, Jody Allen, an assistant professor of history and the Robert Francis Engs director of The Lemon Project, had developed and taught or co-taught seven courses that help students learn about the intricacies of institutional slavery and the information found in William & Mary archives, according to the February 2019 Lemon Project Report. Additionally, student researchers have the opportunity to be mentored by The Lemon Project, according to the report. The project hosts an annual spring symposium, as well as Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks to “foster conversations among students, faculty, staff, and community members,” according to the 2019 report.
Georgetown University’s Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation initiative is committed to “a long-term and ongoing process to more deeply understand and respond to the University’s role in the injustice of slavery and the legacies of enslavement and segregation in our nation,” according to the initiative’s website.
In Georgetown’s early years, there was a sizable presence of enslaved people working at the university, many of whom worked as artisans, cooks and laundresses, according to the initiative’s historical timeline.
Like UR, UVA and William & Mary, Georgetown has focused on research and academic initiatives to expand its knowledge of the history of enslaved people on its campus. The members of the Archives subgroup that gather information for the Georgetown Slavery Archive, led by Adam Rothman, a professor of history and American studies, have “reviewed, digitized, and posted more than 365 materials related to Georgetown, the Society of Jesus, and slavery since 2016,” according to Georgetown’s website.
New courses have been developed as well, focusing on topics such as Georgetown's history, approaches to memorialization, and connections between slavery and religion. Additionally, new programs, projects and initiatives have been started by Georgetown “to deepen [its] commitment to African American Studies, to promoting justice, equality, and equity, and to addressing the present day manifestations of the legacies of slavery and segregation on our campus, in our city, and in our nation,” according to the website.
One such initiative is Georgetown Law’s Juvenile Justice Initiative’s new “Ambassadors for Racial Justice,” which “seeks to bring racial justice concerns to the forefront of juvenile justice advocacy and empower advocates to develop innovative ways to challenge systemic inequities,” according to an article published by Georgetown Law.
Georgetown has also made it a priority to learn from the descendants of people enslaved by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, which has led to historical site visits with descendants, archival and genealogical research and special presentations at the Booth Family Center for Special Collections for descendants, according to Georgetown’s website. Georgetown also has preferential admission consideration for descendants but it is not a determining factor, according to Georgetown’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions website.
Additionally, in 2019, a group of Georgetown students proposed a student referendum, which would establish a student fee that would go toward a fund to support the descendants of enslaved people who had worked at Georgetown, according to Georgetown’s website. In April of 2019, students voted in favor of the referendum, according to Georgetown’s website. Georgetown University officials, led by Georgetown’s president John DeGioia, want to raise around $400,000 a year through voluntary contributions from alumni, faculty, students and philanthropists to support different community projects, such as health clinics, according to a New York Times article.
These are just some of the ways different universities are choosing to memorialize and recognize their past involvement with slavery. The next step for UR’s memorialization committee is to engage the community to figure out what memorialization of the Westham Burial Ground will look like, the co-chairs of the committee, Edward Ayers, professor and UR president emeritus, and Keith McIntosh, vice president for information services and chief information officer said.
“I think now is the time that we want to get engaged with the broadest community as we possibly can,” McIntosh said. “Both [the] internal campus community, but then the descendant community [as well].
“I think together with a wide engagement, we’re going to be able to do the best honor to this process.”
Contact international editor Maeve McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org.