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UVa board votes to support changes in culture and grounds to seek racial equity

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors on Friday unanimously passed a package of six resolutions, including removing the George Rogers Clark statue and the ‘Whispering Wall’ Confederate monument and providing context to the Thomas Jefferson statue near the Rotunda to include Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.

The board also voted to drop the name Curry from the Curry School of Education and Withers from Withers-Brown Hall.

Among the resolutions was support for 11 recommendations to promote racial equity in the student body and faculty and other aspects of the university community and directing administrators to look for funds for the moves and to develop metrics to measure progress.

Rector Jim Murray told the board the resolutions came from the university’s Racial Equity Task Force. The task force was created by UVa President Jim Ryan earlier this year as protests broke out over what Murray called “the national catharsis that came out from the inexcusable, unforgiveable murder of George Floyd.”

“This moment offers us a unique opportunity to take action that will leave a lasting and positive impact on the university we all love,” UVa President Jim Ryan said Friday. “[They are] actions that will make this place more clearly and obviously welcoming to all, and where all have an opportunity to thrive.”

The board voted to double the number of faculty from underrepresented groups in 10 years, review tenure and promotion processes and develop a plan and timeline for creating a student population that “better reflects the racial and socioeconomic demographics of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The board also directed the development of educational programs that concern racial equity and antiracism, including leadership development programs and called for a thorough review of university police practices and policies to ensure “fair, equitable, and transparent practices reflecting 21st century policing principles.”

“Each of these goals contributes to our efforts to make UVa a welcoming, equitable and inclusive place for our students, faculty and staff to learn and pursue their work,” UVa Provost Liz Magill said. “Embracing and pursuing these goals – but more importantly, achieving them – will improve the quality of the experience and the value of the education provided at this university.”

In its resolutions, the board noted that UVa is reexamining its past and has removed or renamed a number of buildings and symbols “of unequal treatment of racial minorities on Grounds,” including removing the Confederate War memorial plaques from the Rotunda.

The university has also built the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and named a residence hall for a formerly enslaved couple who lived and worked at UVa.

“The Board of Visitors supports wholeheartedly the stated objectives of creating a more welcoming climate, investing in relevant education and scholarship, committing to healing and repairing a painful history, and ensuring equal access and success,” a resolution supporting task force recommendations states.

Adding context to Jefferson’s statue regarding his ownership of slaves is part of the effort and crucial to reframing “the historic landscape to tell a broader story about all of those who contributed to building” the school, the resolution states.

“Throughout his lifetime Mr. Jefferson owned slaves and slave labor was employed by the university’s founders to construct and maintain the university’s Academical Village, in direct contradiction of the American ideals of liberty and equality that Jefferson had expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” the resolution states.

Clark’s statue has been the recent focus of protests, vandalism and calls for its removal. It was funded by Paul Goodloe McIntire who also funded the statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

The statues were erected in the 1920s as Virginia began passing racial purity and segregation laws.

“At the time the [Clark] statue was erected, it was described by the [UVa] Alumni News as Clark “explaining the futility of resistance,” which supports a popular sentiment at the time of the natural superiority of white Americans over Native Americans and other nonwhites, which is not a view endorsed by members of the University community now,” the board resolution states.

Although he was born in Albemarle County, Clark had no connections with UVa as he died prior to its founding.

Renaming the Curry School of Education was first recommended in 2018, but the move proved controversial.

“The renaming of the Curry school has been contentious and drawn out because the first efforts were frankly short on scholarship, clumsy in process and unworthy of the University of Virginia,” Murray said.

J.L.M. Curry, for whom the education school is named, did not attend UVa or live in the area, although his son did attend the university. Curry was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the First Confederate Congress and an officer in the Confederate army. After the Civil War he promoted free education for Black students, but was a firm segregationist.

The resolution quoted UVa Professor Gary Gallagher about Curry’s problematic past.

“To reduce a complex history to a single sentence, Curry showed real vision in advocating free public education for the South’s Black children, but an overclouding blindness in refusing to recognize African Americans as having the same potentialities and capacities as whites,” Gallagher said.

The board also stripped Henry Malcolm Withers’ name from the law school building which was named for him after his daughter, Lacy Withers Armour, left the school a $3 million scholarship in honor of her father. The scholarship remains active.

The elder Withers rode with Mosby’s Raiders, a Confederate cavalry unit that conducted guerilla-style warfare. He studied law at UVa after the war and moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1870. He made many speeches favoring the Confederate cause and white supremacist beliefs at Confederate veterans’ events.

The board also approved either rededicating the ‘Whispering Wall’ memorial to Frank Hume, a Confederate soldier, legislator from Alexandria and Washington, D.C. liquor merchant, or moving it.

Hume had no direct connection to UVa or Central Virginia. The memorial was paid for and erected by his sons who attended UVa.

The memorial is known for its designed ability to carry sound from one end of the arc to the other, earning it the ‘whispering wall’ moniker.

“The Board of Visitors requests that the University Committee on Names undertake to determine if rededication of the Hume Memorial Wall is appropriate and feasible, or if the memorial should be removed,” the resolution states.

A final recommendation will be made later.

“There is plenty of work ahead, but I feel like this provides us with a decent roadmap,” Ryan said of the board’s actions. “This will take effort from all of us.”


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