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The Work of the Enslaved Laborers at UVa in the Early Days

By: Kirt von Daacke, Associate Professor of History and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences and Co-Chair, President’s Commission on Slavery and the University

As the spring 2015 semester begins at the University of Virginia, we are now only two years away from the beginnings of what will surely be several years of bicentennial celebrations. These are exciting times indeed! This is also, however, a good time to begin to reflect on that past—the University was a very different place almost two centuries ago.

Construction on what would become the University of Virginia began in 1817 on an abandoned farm about two miles outside of the hamlet of Charlottesville. Charlottesville is located in the center of the large Albemarle County (over 720 square miles), situated in the western Piedmont on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1820, after the state had officially chartered the University (1819), the county remained overwhelmingly rural, with farms and plantations dotting the countryside. At that time, the county was home to only 8,715 white residents. However, Virginia was the largest and most important slave state in the young nation, so Albemarle County was unsurprisingly also home to over ten thousand slaves and a few hundred free people of color. As the University was being constructed, fifty four percent of the residents of the geographically large county were enslaved people.

In that milieu, it should come as no surprise that enslaved laborers formed a significant portion of the UVA construction workforce. In 1825, when the University admitted its first class of students, enslaved laborers continued to work on construction of the University’s buildings and also represented a significant component of the on-Grounds labor force, cooking food, cleaning rooms and Pavilions, hauling provisions and supplies, chopping wood, and so on. This pattern continued through the Civil War. By 1860, the county was home to nearly fourteen thousand slaves out of a total population of nearly twenty-seven thousand. In that year, more than ten percent of the white population owned slaves, with 254 whites owning ten or more slaves (ten individuals in the county owned between one and two hundred slaves). Well over one hundred slaves lived and worked on Grounds. Thus, slavery and the enslaved themselves remained important elements in the unfolding story of the construction, opening, and development of the University of Virginia from 1817 to 1865.

That story, and the history of the lives of the enslaved at the University, has remained largely hidden from view for nearly two hundred years. Happily, that has begun to change. In 2007, the Board of Visitors passed a resolution expressing regret for the school’s use of slaves and the University also installed a memorial plaque at the west entrance floor to the Rotunda hallway recognizing the enslaved and free workers who built the University and brought Jefferson’s vision to reality. In 2012, a memorial plaque was placed in the brick walkway adjacent to the University chapel commemorating Henry Martin, a slave and later free person who lived and worked at the University most of his life.

In 2013, President Sullivan, responded to combined student-faculty-alumni-community initiative and energy (Memorial for Enslaved Laborers, UCARE, IDEA Fund, among others) by forming the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. She charged the commission with researching systematically that past, collaborating with external partners on research and public outreach, creating new ways to incorporate that story into the history presented to the public, considering appropriate memorialization, and proposing future educational and cultural projects related to slavery and the enslaved. To learn more about the commission’s work, please watch our short film, “Unearthed and Understood: Slavery and the University of Virginia,” by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsLkEqOUooc.

Remember, this is just the beginning.

Thoughts on “The Work of the Enslaved Laborers at UVa in the Early Days

    The author notes that slaves formed a “significant portion” of the workforce, but there are no specific numbers, or percentages supplied. He is specific about the numbers of whites, blacks and slave owners but it would have been helpful had he supplied the number of black workers vs. white workers, if this is the focus of this article.

    None of us were there at the time period to which he refers, but we must assume that most white people living in this geographic area (10 percent owned slaves), were not wealthy enough to own slaves. They were farmers and tradesmen, including those who did construction work. This was a common skill for a “significant portion” of the white population, so can it be assumed that as many white people worked on construction as black people? I don’t like to assume, but this article leaves the reader needing to do so, as it is mostly anecdotal.

    Reply

    We cannot perfectly quantify the percentages, but we do know that during construction, the number of enslaved people working at UVA varied daily and yearly, but the number annually was significant, sometimes upwards of 70-80 people, and often involved construction projects being led by skilled enslaved people. There were several white construction contractors (who employed their own enslaved labor in completing their contracts) and dozens of skilled white artisans who worked on pieces of the project. After the school opened, there were 125-200 enslaved people living and working at UVA in any given year. Albemarle County, where the University is located, was home to 10,000 enslaved people (over 50% of population) in 1820 and over 14,000 enslaved people (still over 50% of population) in 1860. Well over half of all adult white male property-owners in the county owned at least one enslaved person–it was a region of concentrated and widespread slaveholding (this can be confirmed by reading decennial census reports that are publicly available or visiting one of the graphic websites that tracks population from census data. You can read the full commission report at slavery.virginia.edu, which was completed earlier in 2018, and consult the vast archival materials it was based upon by visiting UVA’s Special Collections library.

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