The Lives of Slaves at the University of Virginia

Oct 22, 2019

When it opened in 1825, the University of Virginia was the most expensive school in the nation, and for every student there was a slave.  Two new books explore what life was like for them. 

You might expect life at a university to be easier than what enslaved people on plantations went through, but that was not always the case according to Louis Nelson, a Professor of Architectural History at UVA, co-author and editor of Educated in Tyranny.

A new book by Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Alan Taylor sheds light on the lives of slaves at the University of Virginia.
Credit W.W. Norton and Company

“Being an enslaved person at the University of Virginia was in many ways more complicated," he explains, "because the lines of authority are much more blurred.”

Most slaves were owned by so-called hotel-keepers – people hired by the university to assure that students were fed, clothed and cared for, but the young men who attended UVA treated those slaves as their own.

“These are individuals who are going to inherit land and laborers, houses," Nelson says. " They understand themselves to be rising gentlemen masters.”

They often abused campus slaves according to Pulitzer prize-winning historian Alan Taylor. He studied the disciplinary records of the university and found students attacking slaves at will.

“Mostly they are physical assaults," says Taylor. "A student feels that an enslaved person has not responded quickly enough or has responded in a way that the student decides is insolent, and so these young men believed that they had a right to instantly correct, as they put it, which meant physical punishment.”

If students caused serious physical harm, Nelson says, hotel keepers might complain, and the university might take action. 

“There are a few occasions where students are expelled.  There are also a few occasions where students are expelled, and their fathers write in, and students are re-admitted.”

Rape was also a fact of life for female slaves.  Taylor’s book tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by two sons of wealthy slaveholders.  When the boys came down with a sexually transmitted disease, they attacked the girl – beating her up.

Her owner – a local tavern keeper – complained.  The university scolded the boys and wrote letters to their parents and fined them ten dollars – a punishment less severe than what the school imposed for mishandling a library book.

In his new book – Thomas Jefferson’s Education -- Taylor says UVA students were not unique in behaving badly. 

“The principle place of higher education was the College of William and Mary, and it was a very troubled place by drunken, gambling, dueling, roistering students, and it was throughout the newspapers and throughout the debates in the state legislature: What do we do about William and Mary?” 

Thomas Jefferson’s idea was to close that school and fund his university.  William and Mary fought back – asking that it be moved to a more exciting city -- Richmond.  The legislature compromised by allowing the school to stay open – in Williamsburg – and by designating UVA the primary state school of Virginia.

When it was first built, Nelson says, UVA took pains to hide the dirty secrets of slavery.  The famous curved walls on campus today are five feet tall, but when the school first opened they went higher.

“Those are extensively rebuilt between 1948 and 1952 when the Garden Club of Virginia comes in and installs the beautiful gardens that we experience today, but eight feet tall, they do remarkable work separating and possibly even segregating out sound – certainly separating visibility of the alleyways that were dedicated largely for student circulation – and the work yards behind.”

His work and that of Alan Taylor also tell us new things about Jefferson and his slaves.  The University’s founder, for example, may have had a drug problem leading to careless conduct later in life.  Those stories in our next report. 

PART TWO:

There are dozens of books about Thomas Jefferson, Monticello and the University of Virginia, but two scholars from UVA make new discoveries on those subjects in two new books. 

Educated in Tyranny is a series of scholarly thoughts on the lives of slaves at the University of Virginia.
Credit University of Virginia Press

Most of what we know about early American history was discovered by reviewing written records – letters, diaries and documents.  That’s where history professor Alan Taylor has found surprising details about Thomas Jefferson.  Celebrated today, Taylor says Jefferson was a more controversial figure in his own time and not the only one deserving credit for the University of Virginia.

“I found a trove of letters written by Francis W. Gilmer, who is another key figure in that he was sent over to England to recruit the first faculty for the university," Taylor explains. " He was considered by Jefferson to be the brightest young man in all of Virg8nia, and a real rarity in that Jefferson was very disappointed in the younger generation of Virginians.”

But it turns out Gilmer was not so keen on Jefferson.

“When you read Gilmer’s own letters to his brother, they are quite scathing about Jefferson. Certainly many people admired him, but then there were these people we would call ultra-conservatives who thought of Jefferson as a dangerous radical,” Taylor says.

And toward the end of his life, Taylor says, Jefferson could be indiscreet.

“Daniel Webster visits him.  Daniel Webster is an important politician from Massachusetts, and Jefferson says some quite indiscreet and negative things about Andrew Jackson, who was a rising politician at the time.”

In his younger years, Taylor says, the master of Monticello chose his words more carefully, but in his late 70’s and early 80’s something had changed.

“He’s in very poor health, and he has to take a great deal of laudanum, which is an opiate, in order to cope with his pain, and so some of the more erratic things that he says and does in his last years I think we can associate with the great pain he’s in.”

Less is known about Jefferson’s slaves, and in the absence of written records it’s difficult to discern their history, but Louis Nelson, a professor of architectural history, joined colleague Maurie McGinnis and other contributors in looking at the design and construction of UVA.

They learn, for example, how inventive slaves must have been in preparing three meals a day for more than a hundred students.

“In the attic of Pavillion II we found a really interesting series of nails – nails that were not in any way structural -- aligned with the windows, and we figured they were actually drying spaces for herbs, which suggests to us the cellar kitchen, some garden out in the back and this space are part of a circuit of spaces that the cook has to oversee as she is engaged in the delivery of a meal.”

And Alan Taylor reports that as white men began planning the university, African-Americans were lobbying for their own education.

“At the same time that the legislature was is debating setting up the University of Virginia, there is an effort by enslaved people here in Virginia – in Albemarle County -- to set up their own schools.”

In the end, Taylor says, Virginia made it illegal for slaves to learn reading or writing.

“A literate enslaved person can forge a pass to run away or can read anti-slavery literature.”

Some slaves did learn to read and write in spite of the law.  Again, Professor Louis Nelson.

"There are accounts of students helping to provide literacy for the enslaved population. We know the extraordinary story of Isabella  Gibbons after emancipation. She was an enslaved cook in Pavillion Six, but after emancipation she becomes one of the major educators in the Jefferson School.”

Nelson’s new book is called Educated in Tyranny, and Alan Taylor’s latest publication is Thomas Jefferson’s Education.  

***Editor's note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.