The Columns

New Historical Marker Recognizes Washington College Slaves

— by on April 6th, 2016

Washington and Lee University this week introduced a permanent historical marker on campus that recognizes the African Americans who were owned by the school for about three decades prior to the Civil War.

The marker, titled “A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History,” was dedicated at a ceremony on Tuesday. At the event, W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio said that Washington and Lee is an institution built on almost three centuries of history, and the story of these slaves, while uncomfortable to contemplate, is one that must be told “as carefully and as completely as we tell all those stories about this institution.”

“Somehow we have to try to come to terms with those parts of our past that we wish had never happened, those events that we have come to regret,” Ruscio told the crowd that gathered on the Colonnade in the late afternoon sun. “We tell them so that we may learn from them. Today we are taking an important step, but only a step, in meeting that obligation as we introduce this historical marker.”

The 84 individuals whose names are listed on the marker were bequeathed to the university — at that time called Washington College — in 1826 by a prominent Rockbridge County landowner and businessman named “Jockey” John Robinson. The slaves ranged in age from three months to older than 80.

The historical marker, located in a new memorial garden between Robinson and Tucker halls, consists of a narrative that is flanked by reproductions of two lists from university archives. The lists include the names of the 84 women, men, boys and girls bequeathed to the school, as well as their ages and appraised value. There is an additional column that includes information such as whether they had been hired out by Washington College to members of the community.

According to the narrative, the majority of the 67 enslaved persons still owned by the college in the mid-1830s were sold to a Lynchburg man in 1836; others were sold over the following two decades, and records show that the school still owned three elderly, incapacitated individuals as late as 1857.

Seeing the names of these slaves, on what are essentially inventories that include their monetary value, is heartbreaking, Ruscio said.

“We must ask ourselves how this could ever have happened. We wonder how reasonable people could have ever believed that it was acceptable to claim ownership of another human person,” he said. “We wonder how the men who led this institution not only tolerated slavery but used these enslaved men and women to help maintain and fund a college. We must confront the knowledge that our institution has a history connected with the injustice of slavery.”

As part of the ceremony, Anthonia Adams ’16 stood at the podium and read a poem that had been selected by faculty and students in the W&L English department. The chosen poem was “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation south Carolina, 1989” by African American poet Lucille Clifton.

Following the reading, seven people came to the microphone, one at a time, to speak aloud the names listed on the historical marker. The readers were Elizabeth Mugo ’19; Teddy Corcoran ’16; Marquita Dunn of Dining Services; Associate Professor of History Ted DeLaney; Associate Dean of Students Tammi Simpson; John Juneau ’18; and Makayla Lorick ’19.

Mugo said she found the event, and the process of hearing the names read aloud instead of simply seeing them on the marker, “really moving and necessary.”

“While I was reading the names, it was so hard to accept the fact that these people were treated like property at one point in time, but they’re people,” she said. “Also, I think it’s great that they’re getting recognition. Far too often, people forget that this school didn’t pop out of the ground. There were people who built this place and now we’re making steps to acknowledge these facts.”

While most people associated with Washington and Lee will understand and appreciate how the university is handling this chapter in its history, Ruscio said, “a few will undoubtedly accuse us of being politically correct.

“They are wrong. This is not politically correct; it is historically correct.”

However, he said, establishing the historical marker is but one necessary step on a continuing journey to discover and tell an honest, unflinching version of the university’s past.

“We know that there are many other stories still to be told. So this is not a time to congratulate ourselves for recognizing this moment in our history,” Ruscio said. “Instead, we must see this as part of an ongoing — and long overdue — effort to tell the history of Washington and Lee courageously and completely, and to learn from it, and to always strive to make it a better institution, more just and truly respectful of all individuals.”

Read President Ruscio’s Remarks 

Watch the video of the dedication: