The library at the University of Virginia School of Law has launched a website exploring the history of the school’s connections to slavery.

Slavery was part of the fabric of life at the University of Virginia since the time of UVA’s founding in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself. The Rotunda and Academical Village, today part of a collective World Heritage site, were built using enslaved laborers, and slaves continued to work at the University and in the Charlottesville community until their emancipation.

In recent years, the University has undertaken several efforts to acknowledge and explore its past connections to slavery. In 2013, the University established the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to provide advice and recommendations on the commemoration of the school’s historical relationship with slavery and enslaved people. The University’s award-winning Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a project inspired by a student-led effort that began in 2010, opened to the public last year. Much of the early life of the University and its association with slavery has been documented by the research website Jefferson University: Early Life Project.

Randall Flaherty
Randall Flaherty
Photo by Ian Bradshaw

The Law School’s connections to slavery were less documented, until now.

Special Collections Librarian Randall Flaherty of the Arthur J. Morris Law Library led the effort to create content for the site, which was built entirely by library staff. She answered our questions about what she uncovered.

Why did the library want to build this website?

The project was inspired by the work of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University at UVA and by calls to action within our Law School community by groups like the Black Law Students Association and by Dean Risa Goluboff to address our institutional history. We wanted to contribute to this important conversation, and we felt that there was a space that we could fill in investigating the Law School’s historical connections to slavery and supporting research into slavery as it was taught in the UVA classroom.

We are grateful to Library Director Amy Wharton for supporting this work with thoughtfulness and encouragement.

Given the Law School’s current location on North Grounds, it is easy to forget that the Law School was on main Grounds for most of its history and that the history of slavery in the classrooms and residencies of the Academical Village is part of our history, too. In the antebellum period, the landscape of legal education at UVA took place within a landscape of enslavement. All of the law faculty in this era were enslavers, and they lectured about the topic in their classes in ways that helped to justify and solidify the practice to their students. There is new research to be done on the topic of slavery as a curricular subject, and we hope that our site can support that work.

We were also spurred to create the site to recognize the many enslaved people whose lives and labor are part of the Law School’s history. These are people whom the Law faculty enslaved or who lived and labored on Sunnyside, the former plantation site bought by the University in 1963 that now houses North Grounds and the current site of the Law School.

Finally, this site supports work for our forthcoming, multi-author volume on the history of the University of Virginia School of Law’s legal curriculum. The book tells the history of Virginia Law’s curriculum over the past 200 years, and the second chapter is dedicated to exploring slavery as a curricular subject.

What surprises did you uncover?

We are really intrigued with and were surprised about the history of our current site on North Grounds. Today we know this place as North Grounds with the Law and Business schools, Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, and some hiking trails through the woods. But there is a rich history to this place that we have just started to explore. Originally inhabited by the Monacan people, in more recent times this land was owned by the Duke family (purchased by the Dukes in 1863) and farmed by people whom they enslaved. We know that wheat, fruit, hay, sugar and corn grew here. We know the names of some of the enslaved people who lived and labored here. We also know that the Duke property — back along the current Rivanna trail, behind the Law and Business schools — was used after the Civil War as a site for large and well-known barbecues in Charlottesville, for UVA reunions and the Cool Spring Barbecue Club. One of the chefs at these occasions was Caesar Young, who had once been enslaved on the property and later became known in the area for his barbecue skills, and for his Brunswick stew.

What else is notable on the site?

The digitized student notebooks begin to bring a reader into the antebellum law classroom. We hope they will enable important new research into slavery as a curricular subject in Virginia, which only a few scholars have addressed so far.

These sources can be intellectually dense, but they are also remarkably human. Alongside lecture notes you can find student doodles and marginalia notes. On the light side, this includes small doodle drawings of Professor John B. Minor. Alternatively, in one lecture from the 1830s, a student took notes on Professor John A.G. Davis’ lecture on slavery and added the parenthetical comment “danger” in reference to thoughts discussed in the classroom on freeing enslaved people. [The student, G.W. Blatterman, wrote, “In the language of Mr. Jefferson, we had the wolf by the ear, and to hold him or let him go would be attended with equal (danger) difficulty and inconvenience.” Jefferson’s original 1820 letter, written in light of the Missouri Compromise, stated “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”]

Additionally, we hope that the information about enslaved individuals associated with the Law School will give some sense of the magnitude to which the early faculty were engaged in the practice of enslavement, while also recognizing the contribution of enslaved people to our school’s history and their experiences as unique individuals in their own right.

Is this kind of resource unique for a law school?

Most research related to universities, law schools/faculty and slavery has come out in University-wide sites, like those at Columbia, Georgetown, etc. UVA does have the Jefferson University: Early Life Project (JUEL), which has compiled, digitized and interpreted so many early University records. We are indebted to their work and to all of the resources and expertise that the JUEL team has marshaled.

In this research, we are also grateful to be collaborating with a team spearheaded by Dean Ian Solomon and JUEL for an exhibit on slavery and race at Pavilion X, the longtime home of Law School professors and law classes.

You plan to add on to the site over time. What’s next?

I am grateful to be working alongside project principals Loren Moulds, Meggan Cashwell and Logan Heiman, and we are dedicated to adding more research and more research materials to the site going forward. Immediately, there is more work to be done to identify and spotlight the lives of enslaved people. As researchers dig into the student notebooks, we want to make accessible new findings on how slavery was taught and discussed in the classroom through essays or blog posts. The Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library on UVA Main Grounds has a tremendous collection of these law student notebooks, and we would love to explore a collaboration with them in the future to digitize these materials.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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