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UVA Works to Improve Diversity, Despite History - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

UVA Works to Improve Diversity, Despite History

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Office of African American Affairs at UVA Office of African American Affairs at UVA
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va (WVIR) -

Within the past decade American colleges and universities have begun paying much closer attention to role of slavery at their institutions. And like many schools, the University of Virginia is discovering a history of racism and racial tensions.

It's becoming clear that UVA, the school Thomas Jefferson dreamed up, was built, and maintained by slaves.

"They were able to keep the slaves off grounds, and the professors had them, and that also the university owned enslaved people as well," said Frank Dukes, the director of the University and Community Action for Racial Equality, or UCARE.

Dukes and Professor Phyllis Leffler teach a class at UVA called “UVA History Race and Repair.” As a group project the students from that class have arranged an upcoming conference on the role of slaves at Virginia universities.

“It’s a topic that we actually don’t know that much about. It’s only within the last several years, within the last decade that our own university, the University of Virginia, has discovered really publicly that we did have slaves," he said.

A brochure on slavery recently produced by UVA outlines some of the history of slavery at the university and shares stories of those who were enslaved. “Reflective of the United States in the early 19th Century, slavery was an integral component of the university starting with its construction and continuing into the Civil War,” it reads.

Just last year the university discovered a cemetery where dozens of slaves are likely buried.

“Of course with the emancipation there was the end to slavery but there were several formerly enslaved people still involved with the university so we’re just learning about all that,” Dukes said.

In more modern history, the 1960s brought some blacks to the university, but it was still segregated.

“The university was supposed to produce future leaders. Translation: white males,” said Maurice Apprey, the dean of African-American Affairs at UVA. His office was created in the 1970s to help eliminate racial barriers at the university and provide a resource to black students.

“The first phase was when they couldn’t attend. The second phase is when they came here but they had such horrible experiences or mixed experiences that a third phase had to occur, which is the creation of this office to make sure they had a home away from home,” he said.

“The office was created to provide assistance to academic and nonacademic units, to provide help to African-Americans so that they could integrate more fully and participate in all the positive experiences students can have in college,” Apprey added.

Charles Yancey said he’s the first black student from Charlottesville to get an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia. “UVA was subject to the laws of the state of Virginia and separate but equal was still the law of the land,” he said.

Yancey chose to study civil engineering. “Most blacks were in programs like engineering,” he said. “In order for you to go there you had to be entering into a field that was not offered by historically black colleges.”

Each year he attended, he said a few blacks graduated and only a few more were admitted. “I went there from ’61 to ’64 and the maximum number of us was about seven."

Since Yancey’s family lived in Charlottesville he was able to live at home. But the experience was a lot different for those who lived on campus. “They talk about walking to dorms…at night and people calling you names,” Yancey said. “There was a lot of isolation and basically most of the people in your classes kind of stayed away from you. They didn’t necessarily say anything to you bad - they didn’t say anything to you good.”

He reflected on how all the social aspects of life at the university were off limits. “There were no sports teams you could join, there was no intercollegiate athletics that you could participate in. Things like fraternity life was obviously out,” Yancey said.

And the race issues didn’t end with students. Many professors also made it clear they didn’t want blacks to be in their classes.

“Professors would let you know - it wasn’t quite the word ‘negro’ and it wasn’t quite what we refer to as ‘the N-word’ now but somewhere in between they would let you know that they didn’t think you should be there studying,” Yancey said.

And being in that type of environment, many black students stuck together, he said. “We for the most part were a close-knit, we had our own sort of fraternity, not necessarily by choice.”

Dukes said, "But it's also a challenging story because the active efforts by the university and almost all the faculty and students too to keep from integrating the University of Virginia, but there's some inspiring stories.”

Inspiring stories like those of families housing black students who weren't allowed to live at UVA, and feeding them when they couldn't eat in area businesses. Yancey's sister Evelyn Jones remembered how her parents helped students who had no real home at school.

“They were in their own little cluster, it was as if you were in a big gathering and there were, you know, five or six or 10 African-Americans and everyone around you was talking to everyone else and excluded you. That was pretty much how life was,” Jones said.

“So it was incumbent upon the students ‘if I don’t have a life here on campus I have to find a place where I can be a person and live out who I am,’ and they integrated themselves into the black community, going to the black churches. There were always several of them with us on Sundays,” Jones added.

Some say modern times are bringing in change. More than 6 percent of UVA students are black, and the school says it has one of the highest African-American graduation rates among major public institutions in the U.S.

“It’s been a very gradual experience and I’m very happy to say a very positive experience for the most part, for most people who come here,” Apprey said. “This is a very different place.”

Others say UVA is still not a place of equal opportunity, plagued with declining black enrollment, and a small percentage of black professors and department heads.

"For some people the perception is that we haven't come far enough,” Dukes said. “What can we do as a community to address those concerns people still have? Some people feel as though we haven't made that transition, we haven't become the really truly inclusive university that we can be."

“Sure work needs to be done and we’ll continue to do that,” said Apprey.

For Yancey, having a sense of pride in his alma mater may never happen, but he’s started to feel more positive about UVA over the years.

“For many years I would come to town to visit family, but I wouldn't set foot on the grounds,” he said. “Gradually my - I guess you’d say my sentiments - my feelings began to change. I don’t think I ever had any deep-seated hatred or anything like that because see I knew what I was getting into, it wasn’t like I got a big surprise.”

Now Yancey said he’d even recommend the school for his friends’ children. “I think UVA is doing much better in addressing some of these past ills. It takes a lot to make up for a couple hundred years."

And to help address those past issues President Sullivan has recently appointed a commission on slavery at the university, and there are several groups at UVA dedicated to working toward greater diversity and African-American achievement.

The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, or PCSU, is just beginning its work to explore and report on UVA’s historical relationship with slavery and highlight opportunities for recognition and commemoration. There have been two meetings so far.

According to the commission’s website, Brown University, Emory University, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are among schools that have already taken steps to acknowledge and understand the role that slaves played at their institutions. “The University of Virginia will join other premier institutions in exploring and commemorating its relationship with slavery, as well as the lives of the enslaved people who were an integral part of early life at Jefferson’s University,” the website reads.

An event Friday and Saturday will bring people from all across the commonwealth together to discuss how slavery has impacted Virginia universities.

The Virginia Universities and Race Histories Conference is Friday and Saturday in Nau Hall at UVA. Organizers hope to reflect on the role of slavery and discrimination in shaping Virginia universities, as well as come up with ways to improve its continued effect. Anyone is welcome to attend.

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