As a child, Dr. Marcus Martin heard stories about grave robbers, or “ogres,” in African-American graveyards.
He didn’t think much of it then, he said, but later, as he became a physician and a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, he noticed that many cadavers used for dissection were black, and began learning about a long tradition of grave robbing in the state.
“It became real,” he said. “And when black bodies were stolen, there were no riots.”
The University of Virginia’s participation in grave robbing is documented by the final report of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, which Martin co-chaired. The report details decades of slavery and mistreatment of slaves and free black workers at the university and by its professors and students.
“We knew as soon as we started that the research couldn’t be contained to UVa,” said Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and professor of history. “And we knew that it shouldn’t be confined to just the distant past; slavery shaped the world that came after it.”
According to the report, a farmer near UVa in 1834 reported finding five men digging up a former slave’s grave and shot at them; the men, who were UVa students, later filed a report for interfering with their medical education.
UVa’s medical program expanded from 1837 to 1861, adding professors who in turn demanded more cadavers. The university contracted with resurrectionists in Norfolk, Richmond and Baltimore who frequently targeted African-American cemeteries, and the practice continued into the 1900s.
The final report, available online, describes the commission’s work and includes almost 40 pages detailing the African-American presence and community in and around the university, both pre-Emancipation and into the early 20th century.
More than 100 enslaved people at a time lived and worked at the university between 1825 and 1865, according to the report. Professors and hotelkeepers rented or owned slaves to do cleaning, cooking and construction work. Enslaved people were reportedly beaten, whipped and raped on or near Grounds.
“From the first day of classes in 1825, the vast majority of students came from slave states and from wealthy slaveholding families,” according to the report. “They had been privately educated and indulged by their planter families. Their first experience living away from home became a daily education in mastery.”
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The University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery began in 2013 after a trickle of universities began digging up old stories of founders and professors who had owned slaves.
UVa’s commission, itself modeled after Brown University, also has been a model for other schools, in both the North and South, to begin studying their own history. In 2017, Georgetown University acknowledged 272 slaves were sold in 1838 to fund the school’s start. The University of Pennsylvania released a report in June that disclosed that at least 75 of Penn’s first trustees owned slaves. Penn professors also helped develop racial pseudoscience and argued for the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which counted enslaved people as less than a whole person for the purposes of congressional representation.
In just a few years, an informal coalition of schools doing research on their own enslaved laborers has been transformed into a formal group, the Universities Studying Slavery, with an international conference and dozens of initiatives to codify that work into physical and institutional changes.
But many predominantly white, formerly segregated universities are still doing that work on their own terms, said John Rosenthall, president of the Tougaloo College Research and Development Foundation. Tougaloo, a historically black college in Mississippi, is a member of the coalition and the host of its upcoming October symposium. Rosenthall argues that as institutions begin to turn from research to repair efforts, they should partner with and take their lead from historically black schools.
“As long as most of your repair efforts are internal — whether recruiting more African-American students or faculty, placing memorials, changing names, taking names off buildings or expanding outreach — you’re just doing things than benefit you and your community,” Rosenthall said. “But if slavery affected all African-Americans, any repair initiative should benefit all African-Americans.”
Historically black colleges serve just a small percentage of the student population, according to the Brookings Institute, but they account for 20 percent of black students who complete bachelor’s degrees. They also help to move students from low-income backgrounds to higher-income adulthoods.
Black universities are doing a good job offering equity and addressing legacies of slavery, Rosenthall said, and he’d like to add partnerships with more white institutions to continue that work.
“It would appear to me that one of the most appropriate models to repair the damage of slavery would be to strengthen and help HBCUs,” Rosenthall said.
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As UVa’s slavery commission finishes his work, von Daacke said he has appreciated its community engagement efforts; most other schools doing similar work, he said, haven’t deeply engaged the surrounding town and state. The school has undertaken educational opportunities, community involvement, events and ideas for future research and commemoration.
“With the memorial in particular,” von Daacke said, “it looks the way it looks and does the things it will do because of nine months of community conversations.”
The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which will be built this fall by Brooks Hall, will be a circular stone ring etched with all the known names of enslaved people who worked at the university.
As the slavery commission wrapped up its work, Sullivan established a new complementary group to continue this serious investigation into the University’s history. Von Daacke will co-lead the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation with Andrea Douglas, a UVa alumna and executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville.
Martin, who is retiring in December, won’t be on the new commission, but as the university begins to study an era that he lived through, he said he hopes it will rely on the oral histories of himself and others that lived through segregation and paint a picture of the daily differences and indignities enforced by Jim Crow.
“We have come far,” he said, “but ‘separate but equal’ extended far beyond drinking different water at the train station.”