On July 18, 1817, construction of the University of Virginia, then called Central College, began when Thomas Jefferson assigned ten slaves to clear what had once been James Monroe‘s cornfield. On October 7, a day after the university’s cornerstone was laid, theand authorized the hiring of laborers, which presumably included slaves, whites, and free blacks. Over the next nine years, these men cleared and leveled land; hauled, cut, and nailed timber; molded and fired bricks; transported quarried stone; and participated in nearly all other activities related to the building of the university. In November 1818, an enslaved man called Carpenter Sam began tinwork at the site and eventually contributed to the construction of two pavilions and three hotels. In May 1820, an enslaved man named Elijah began hauling quarried stone, and in February of the following year the slave William Green was hired to perform blacksmithing duties. In 1825, fifteen slaves manufactured between 800,000 and 900,000 bricks to be used in the construction of the Rotunda, a domed building that was the focal point of the Academical Village and would serve as the university’s library.
The university was officially founded in January 1819, and by April of that year Jefferson, in his role as a member of the board of visitors, had agreed to theof a slave for $125. However, most enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia during its construction were not owned but rather rented by the school. The university paid the slaves’ owners a set fee for a set period of time, usually a year, but sometimes for as little as a day, a week, a month, or the duration of a given task. The university agreed to feed and house the slaves and to return them with , which amounted to clothes, underclothes, and double-soled shoes. Traditionally, the university was responsible for medical costs, although there were instances when officials attempted to negotiate out of these obligations.
At the height of building, in 1820, the university paid $1,099.08 in hiring fees. In 1821, hired slaves cost the university $1,133.73, while in 1822 that figure dropped to $866.64, and in 1825, as construction was being completed, it fell to $681. On average, the board of visitors paid owners $60 per slave per year, although the particular amounts depended on enslaved men’s ages, physical conditions, and skills. The number of slaves working alongside free laborers fluctuated from year to year. In 1821, there were thirty-two, some of whom were underage. In 1822, there may have been as few as fifteen. An overseer was responsible for providing food and clothing and maintained a large vegetable garden on site. He also was charged with the supply and maintenance of all tools and carts as well as the upkeep of horses. James Harrison served as overseer from 1820 until 1821, and John Herron from 1821 until construction was completed in 1826.
Duties on Grounds
Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural Drawings for the University of Virginia
In the years before the Civil War, more than 100 enslaved men and women worked at the university at any given time. Many of them labored in the hotels, or boardinghouses, located on the Academical Village’s East and West Ranges. For an annual fee of between $150 and $165, hotelkeepers provided students with three daily meals, as well as furniture, linens, firewood, ice, water, and laundry and cleaning services. Slaves owned by the hotelkeepers—and not by the university—performed all associated tasks.
In 1842, the faculty articulated thirteen specific chores to be performed by the hotelkeepers’ slaves: fetching water and clean towels, making fires in winter, cleaning rooms, making beds, cleaning candlesticks, washing fireplaces (once a week), blacking andirons (once a week), carrying water to each dormitory (twice daily), washing windows (once a month), whitewashing fireplaces (twice a summer), blacking students’ shoes, carrying ice, and stacking wood. Between two forty-five and three o’clock every afternoon, one slave from each hotel was made available to run errands for students. In addition, hotel slaves cooked the day’s meals and cleaned up afterward. On average, there was one slave for every twenty students.
Other slaves were owned or, more rarely, hired by the university. Anatomical Lewis, possibly owned by the university as early as 1830 and as late as 1860, assisted the anatomy professor in what the historian Catherine S. Neale has described as “a sordid job and poor living conditions,” making him “an outcast of the community.” The enslaved man Lewis Commodore had been hired out to the university for a number of years when school officials, learning that his master intended to sell him, purchased him on July 18, 1832, for $580. Commodore rang the Rotunda’s so-called Medway Bell, which marked the day’s schedule, until 1847, when the duty passed to, a free black. Beginning in 1834, Commodore also opened the library each morning and tended to lecture rooms, ensuring they were tidy and warm. In 1851, the faculty determined that he had “repeatedly and grossly neglected his duties,” a dereliction possibly related to his reported abuse of alcohol, and relieved Commodore of his responsibilities. He was then sold.
Enslaved workers lived in various makeshift. Until 1834, when slaves were prohibited from residing in the Rotunda, Lewis Commodore likely lived in a room on that building’s ground floor. A brick building near the gates of the university housed slaves until 1838, when it was appropriated for an infirmary. Faculty-owned slaves often lived in the basements of the pavilions or in unclaimed rooms, while others, including Anatomical Lewis, may have occupied structures built in the university’s gardens. Hotel slaves likely found space in their respective hotels.
The quality and timeliness of the hotel slaves’ service were often the subject of complaints by students and faculty. Slaves were charged with neglecting to clean rooms and not completing their work quickly or subserviently enough. In some cases, hotelkeepers responded by blaming their slaves’ poor health, which may have been due to poor diet and living conditions. Many slaves also may have had more work than they could accomplish in a timely manner. The historian, but likely reflecting attitudes from the previous century, blamed in part “slipshod slave service” for frequent outbreaks of disease, including typhoid fever, especially on the East Range: “The inefficient services of that day furnished by lazy, untrained slaves, who had been hired out only too often because their characters were bad, was an additional cause of these outbursts of distemper.” School administrators generally settled such complaints by instructing hotelkeepers to supervise their enslaved laborers more closely.
Treatment by Students
Students often treated slaves rudely, at times even verbally and physically assaulting them. The university’s response to such behavior was inconsistent. These young men, two-thirds of whom were nineteen years old or younger, mostly came from southern, slave-owning families. As such, “they had been reared under a system tending to nourish in them unusual independence of character in spite of their immaturity,” according to the historian Bruce. He went on to explain that “the free life of the plantation and the presence of slaves created an unconscious dislike of restrictions not imposed by parental right.” This “haughtiness of spirit” often manifested in disrespectful actions toward faculty and slaves alike.
In(1785), Jefferson anticipated this problem, that the children of slave-owners, “thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” But in separating students from their personal slaves, he could not separate them from the institution more broadly or from its attendant cruelties and violence.
In one instance, a student threw bread at a hotel slave and received a reprimand; in another, a student threw a glass and received a week’s suspension. In 1835, the university suspended a student for two weeks for hitting a hotel slave. Four years later, an intoxicated student named Frederick Hall fired a pistol and attacked a hotel slave with a bowie knife. Although no one was injured, Hall was expelled. On November 13, 1837, a group of rowdy students fired pistols on the Lawn and then beat the bell ringer Lewis Commodore, possibly in protest of the school’s strict time schedules. In a rare move, the university allowed Commodore to testify and he identified one of his assailants.
Not all attacks were punished, however. On February 24, 1838, two students, Franklin English and Madison McAfee, were attempting to disperse a group of free blacks when they were approached by Fielding, a slave owned by the mathematics professor. English and McAfee turned on Fielding. They administered “a severe and inhuman beating,” according to faculty meeting notes, and when the professor intervened “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered,” he was verbally assaulted. English, McAfee, and Bonnycastle—but not Fielding—were asked to testify before the Faculty Committee, which referred the matter to civil authorities. Bonnycastle died in 1840, before any action was taken.
On April 23, 1850, three students, George H. Hardy, Armistead C. Eliason, and James E. Montandon, allegedly encountered a seventeen-year-old slave girl in Charlottesville, took her to a field, and raped her. Three other students caught them in the act, and the university expelled the young men and referred the case to the civil authorities. The students fled town and no charges were filed.
In 1856, a student named Noble B. Noland confessed to beating unconscious a slave girl, aged ten or eleven. She had wandered onto Grounds and, after being confronted by Noland, had not replied with appropriate deference. The girl’s owner, a hotelkeeper named Miss Terrell, intervened, but Noland returned later in the day, when Miss Terrell was no longer present, and attacked the girl. Although Terrell did not lodge a complaint, the Faculty Committee called Noland to testify on May 2. He told the professors that “whenever a servant is insolent to him, he will take upon himself the right of punishing him without the consent of his master.” His actions, he said, were “not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons.” The faculty, which at first had recommended Noland be expelled, reconsidered. He was not punished.
Issue of Slavery on Grounds
A few of the University of Virginia’s founders were ambivalent about the institution of slavery. Most famous among them was Thomas Jefferson, but the first board of visitors also included, James Monroe, and , who freed a couple of his own slaves and then, as a member of the American Colonization Society, paid their passage to Africa.
In 1832, following Nat Turner’s Rebellion and in the midst of the General Assembly‘s, the Jefferson Society, a student-debating club, selected Merritt Robinson to draft a speech on the occasion of Jefferson’s birthday. Robinson’s speech, which argued for the emancipation of Virginia slaves, was approved by the faculty chairman, , who himself was ambivalent about slavery. A former congressman, Tucker had authored an antislavery novel, The Valley of Shenandoah (1824), and supported colonization before changing his mind and deciding that slavery would die out without the intervention of politicians. Unlike Tucker, however, the rest of the faculty strongly disapproved of Robinson’s speech and prohibited the Jefferson Society from ever again orating on any point of state or national controversy.
Most students supported slavery and. In 1850, a number of students founded the Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, proclaiming, according to the historian Bruce, “that they witnessed with regret the encroachments which the States of the North, hostile to slavery, were constantly making upon the rights, the interests, and the institutions of the commonwealth of the South.”
A number of professors promoted proslavery ideology. In “Essay on Liberty and Slavery,” published in 1857, mathematics professor Albert T. Bledsoe argued that slavery was a positive good. George Frederick Holmes, a faculty member from 1857 until his death in 1897, wrote in support of Aristotle’s thesis that some men were born to be masters and some to be slaves.
During the Civil War, a university professor served as one of Virginia’s most outspoken proponents of. Basil L. Gildersleeve, a professor of Greek and Hebrew from 1856 until 1875, penned sixty-three editorials for the Daily Richmond Examiner between October 1863 and August 1864. In , published on April 5, 1864, Gildersleeve compared enslaved African Americans to the ass in an old saying attributed to Mohammed upon being offered chariots of fire at the gates of heaven: “I am used to my ass. I don’t want to change. I will either go to heaven on my ass or I will not go to heaven at all.” In , published on April 18, 1864, Gildersleeve warned against miscegenation, writing that “it is to this watchful care [not to mix races] that we owe the supremacy of the white man on the continent, and that we look down so proudly on the mixed population of Mexico and the twenty-two cross-breeds of Lima.”
On May 8, 1865, following‘s and a few months prior to the adoption of the freeing all enslaved men and women, university faculty members met at the home of their chairman, Socrates Maupin. According to notes from the meeting, the prevailing sentiment was that former slaves deserved no assistance from their former masters, although Professor John B. Minor wrote privately of his concern for “the poor hapless creatures.” The board of visitors but in this and future meetings declined to articulate any plans for its former slaves. Instead, the university’s enslaved laborers likely relocated to already-existing African American or integrated communities such as Canada, just south of Grounds, while often retaining their jobs. They now worked as contract employees but under the same poor working conditions.