University of Virginia Rotunda

The Shadows at U.Va.

Most Virginians, and especially those of us here in Charlottesville, know what a difficult year the University of Virginia endured from 2014 to 2015. A student was horribly murdered; there were multiple suicides; the Rolling Stone article on campus rape ran and then was later retracted, prompting more than one lawsuit; and video of an African American student, injured at the hands of ABC agents, went viral.
The current issue of Vanity Fair has a piece about all of this, written by Sarah Ellison, a U.Va. alumna, and it opens with a brief bit of broad cultural context. The university is the “safe version” of the South, according to Ellison, one where a certain elitist, aristocratic element holds sway, holding back the sort of scenes one associates with the Deep South. “In the past,” she writes, “U.Va. students looked at Ole Miss, with its Confederate flags hanging in fraternity-house windows, and felt superior. Sure, you might have come across the occasional Confederate flag at U.Va. too, but they were hardly ubiquitous and were usually met with a roll of the eyes.”
“In the Deep South,” she continues, “The shadowy side is actually out in the sunlight. Thomas Jefferson’s U.Va. prefers the shadows to be in the shadows.”
This is rather simplistic, of course, and Ellison acknowledges that later in the article. It was the murder of a faculty member that led to the Honor System, after all. That was in 1840. And then there’s the fact that women weren’t accepted as students until 1970, and only then because of a court order.
But I still wonder whether this “in the shadows” business is a pretty recent phenomenon. Our entry on Sarah-Patton Boyle notes that after she published an article in the Saturday Evening Post urging desegregation, “local segregationists burned a cross in her yard.” That was in 1955.
A few years earlier in 1947, the former governor Colgate W. Darden became president of the university. While editing our entry on him this morning, I came across this passage:

During the next twelve years [Darden] rejuvenated the university. Attempting to make it a more democratic institution—over the objections of many students, some of whom burned a cross on his lawn—he encouraged the enrollment of public school students, diminished the role of fraternities, and constructed a student activities building. When a faculty member accused him of trying to make the university “a catch-all for everybody who wants to go to college in the state,” Darden replied, “That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Imagine that. There was nothing particularly shadowy about this version of Mr. Jefferson’s university, and it wasn’t that long ago, either.
IMAGE: The Rotunda, as seen from the Lawn, at the University of Virginia


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