W&L memorial to inherited slaves a ‘step forward’

By Barbara Bent

A controversial movement across college campuses on the East Coast has come to Washington and Lee with the aim of recognizing the role of early African Americans in its history.

On Tuesday, President Kenneth Ruscio addressed critics elsewhere who say such a reconsideration of history is merely “political correctness.”

“This is not politically correct,” Ruscio said at an unveiling of a historical marker naming 84 slaves that the institution inherited in 1826. “It’s historically correct.”

Friday morning at Hillel House, representatives from the University of Virginia, Roanoke College, and the College of William and Mary will meet at W&L to continue a conversation on African American histories at each campus. It is the group’s second semi-annual meeting.

New historical marker recognizes the 84 slaves “Jockey” John Robinson gave to W&L.
A new historical marker recognizes the 84 slaves “Jockey” John Robinson gave to W&L in 1826.

The panel discussion, “Memorials, Markers, and Monuments to Enslaved Laborers: Process, Progress, and Perceptions,” is open to members of the W&L community.

“We want this to be something that members of our community are interested in having more conversations about,” said W&L Associate Provost Elizabeth Knapp.

Knapp is also the chair of the Special Working Group on the History of African Americans at W&L, which was founded by Ruscio in 2013. She works alongside six other members of the group, including alumnus and associate professor of history, Ted DeLaney.

“Ebony and Ivy,” a 2013 book by Professor Craig Steven Wilder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a major inspiration for the group’s formation. The work traces the histories of slavery on major university campuses in the Eastern United States.

Meanwhile, at the University of Virginia, research associate Kelley Deetz works for the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which is similar to the Working Group at W&L. Deetz also spearheads a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities that are unearthing their historical ties to slavery. The schools in the consortium each have their own programs to study their campus’s African American histories. The consortium, now called Universities Studying Slavery (USS), has widened to include schools in North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi.

Deetz also was hired to chair the Heritage Trail project at UVA, which consists of a self-guided trail around campus that highlights historical sites having to do with slavery. Next year, Deetz says, students will develop a smartphone app to guide visitors through the trail.

“We are in the early stages of planning an actual memorial site that will go at the end of the trail, ideally,” said Deetz.

“A Difficult, Yet Unavoidable History”

The most recent project of W&L’s Working Group is the placement of the historical marker outside of Robinson Hall, one of the buildings on the campus’s Colonnade. Robinson is the name of an alumnus and early benefactor, the Irish immigrant bachelor and landowner “Jockey” John Robinson, who bequeathed 84 slaves to Washington College in 1826. The marker itself reproduces documents containing the names of the men, women and children who were held in slavery by the College. The documents also list their ages and dollar value.

“Acknowledging times we failed in our past can strengthen our resolve in the future,” said Ruscio at the event Tuesday afternoon to introduce the marker to the campus and community.

W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio spoke about the history of slavery at the institution during a ceremony held.
W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio spoke about the history of slavery at the institution during a ceremony Tuesday.

The ceremony included the recitation of a poem by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning black poet Lucille Clifton, “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, South Carolina, 1989.” Following the reading, various members of the W&L community stood up to read off the names of those 84 slaves owned by Washington College.

“It’s a step forward,” said DeLaney, “and what some of us hope is that at some point there will be something that is much more substantive that memorializes the Robinson slaves. One of the things that’s been bantered about is possibly a scholarship.”

Either a scholarship or a more “impressive” monument could be in the future to commemorate this history. DeLaney mentioned a recent controversy at the University of Mississippi. There, a statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier built in 1906 has become the subject of a heated debate. The university plans to address the historical context and value of the monument.

“My thought about monuments is that when you remove them, you’re not destroying history,” said DeLaney. “Because generally, if it’s a monument to a person, Confederate heroes, for instance, there have [already] been volumes written about them.”

This opened a conversation at the ceremony about the recent Confederate controversy on W&L’s campus: Replicas of historic Confederate flags were removed around the marble statue of a recumbent Robert E. Lee in Lee Chapel. Erecting a marker describing the history of slaves at this institution could prompt further questions, said DeLaney, but the failure to address the history results in denying the contribution of those enslaved people to the campus.

“It’s a chapter of history that people don’t like to talk about,” said DeLaney. “To deny that history is to also fail to give credit to some people who involuntarily were a part of this heritage. They were people who had no control over the choices and their lives. To acknowledge them is to give them credit for making it possible for this place to continue to exist. To deny that they have no contribution at all is a serious injustice.”