New Law, Signed at UVA, Focuses on Reparations for Descendants of Enslaved Workers

May 5, 2021 By Anne E. Bromley, Anne E. Bromley,

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam visited the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Wednesday for the ceremonial signing of recent legislation to establish the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Programs.

Introduced by state Del. David Reid of the 32nd district, based in Loudoun County, the bill – officially signed April 1 – requires five public universities that were established before the end of the Civil War and used enslaved laborers to build their institutions to address their history with slavery, including searching for enslaved individuals and their descendants. They are required to make reparations through scholarships or community-based economic development and memorial programs, starting in 2022. Along with UVA, the institutions include the College of William & Mary, Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Military Institute. The legislation prohibits the colleges from using state funds or raising tuition to cover the costs.

A small group gathered at the recently dedicated memorial, located between the Rotunda and the Corner within the boundary of the UNESCO World Heritage Site on Grounds.

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The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers with a crowd of people to the right of the image sitting in socially distanced chairs
The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, the product of years of research to identify the enslaved men and women who worked on Grounds and honor them, was completed last year. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The University recently held a virtual dedication of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which is the product of years of research to identify the enslaved men and women who worked on Grounds and to honor them.

UVA President Jim Ryan welcomed the attendees, saying that as the memorial to UVA’s enslaved laborers looks backward at our past, this new legislation, and the program it creates, look to the future.

Speakers included Northam and Reid, both of whom have daughters who attended UVA; Robin Reaves Burke, a member of the NAACP of Loudoun County and a descendant of the Hemings family; and Carolyn Mitchell Dillard, University-community liaison in UVA’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and a representative of the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA.

“The new law establishes a program that will help UVA and other schools in Virginia tell future generations the full story of our past association with slavery, by creating memorials like this one,” Ryan said. “The program will also help us find new ways to support the descendants of the enslaved laborers that we memorialize here and elsewhere.

We can do this. Keep going, UVA.

“With this memorial, we have already taken one step forward to fulfill the obligations.”

Ryan said that UVA is committed to working with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to enact this new program.

Northam said the legislation for the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Programs, like UVA’s memorial, is a critical piece in reckoning with 400 years of Virginia history and telling the full and complete story.

“History is not [a series of isolated events], but a continuum,” he said. “Slavery was followed by Jim Crow discrimination, then Massive Resistance. We had redlined neighborhoods, and different standards for mortgage lending. The bias built into our systems may no longer be as overt, but it still exists,” he said, mentioning mass incarceration of African Americans and health care and educational disparities along racial lines.

Northam lauded the bipartisan support for the bill, as did Reid.

Governor Ralph Northam speaking at a podium to a crowd
Gov. Ralph Northam, at the lectern, said the legislation will move Virginia forward in reckoning with its difficult past and repairing the damage with tangible benefits for descendants. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Reid also acknowledged what UVA is already doing to address the history of slavery on Grounds and the nation.

“I’ve often highlighted the work that UVA has done on the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium and this memorial,” he said. “You have proven what is possible when we commit the time and resources to reconcile with our past.”

It will require an ongoing commitment to tackle the legacy of slavery and create “a trajectory of success” for African Americans over successive generations to achieve transformational change, Reid said.

“Truly addressing the long-term, systemic impacts of slavery that permeate so many aspects of our society will require a multi-generational commitment. Not only legislation and policies that span multiple generations, but multiple generations of governors, legislators, activists and citizens who are committed to undoing the painful legacy of the past 400 years,” he said.

Dillard said, “As co-stewards of the University, the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA stands ready to collaborate with the University of Virginia to establish guidelines for the implementation of these programs.

“This law is part of a historic moment, a sea change in the Commonwealth of Virginia, by recognizing the generational harm that many Black communities have experienced,” she said. “However, we recognize that this law is only the first step, and it is our mission to seek healing and repair for the descendants of the enslaved and free Black Virginians associated with the University of Virginia.”

Northam and the other speakers also acknowledged that these are just first steps on the journey to heal the wounds of the commonwealth’s past.

Ryan added, “The governor knows, as we do here at UVA, that education is the path to understanding, and that understanding leads us to reconciliation and reimagining our future.”

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications