Institutional History Update

October 30, 2019

Dear Members of the University Community,

I write to provide an update on work under way this academic year to understand more fully and communicate more inclusively aspects of the University’s history.

As you may recall, following release of the June 30 Making Excellence Inclusive report and recommendations, we began to pursue specific recommendations made by the President’s Advisory Committee for Making Excellence Inclusive, the Interim Coordinating Council, and the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity (the Commission). I am grateful to all in our community who work daily to advance our shared aspirations and ambitious goals in support of a thriving and inclusive community at Richmond.

Historical Research
This summer the University started to implement recommendations from the Commission, engaging Dr. Lauranett Lee, who served as co-chair of the Commission and is a nationally recognized public historian and current visiting faculty member, to lead this year’s institutional history work. To date, the historical research has examined evidence of a possible burial ground for enslaved people on what is today our campus, as well as traced the previous owners and inhabitants of our land.

Burial Ground Evidence and the Uses of the Land
Questions about the burial ground arose in response to two reported instances of human remains being discovered and reinterred on our campus grounds in the mid-20th century. We anticipate Dr. Lee and her team will complete their current burial ground research in early December. While it is uncertain what the research will yield, we are confident that at the very least it will help us tell a more expansive and inclusive history, as called for by the Commission.

The larger contours of the historical research are still taking shape, but we already know our campus grounds hold a story that is deep and diverse, complex and painful at times, inspiring and progressive at others. Indigenous people, including members of the Monacan Nation and the Powhatan Confederacy, formed settlements and trade routes in the area in the centuries before European colonists and enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s. The current research, alongside a substantial SPCS graduate student research project begun last year and supported by many UR faculty and staff, confirms that a significant number of enslaved persons lived, labored, and suffered on the land where our campus is now located through the 18th century and the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The research also discusses a Richmond, Virginia, based African American mutual aid organization, the True Reformers, that held a large parcel of this land in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The True Reformers were highlighted in a report edited by W.E.B. Dubois as “probably the most remarkable” African American organization in the country in terms of its scale and range of business enterprises.

These stories of the land predate our acquisition of our campus grounds in 1910, yet it is fully consistent with our educational mission to uncover, understand, and share this history, since it intertwines with the history of our city, region, and nation. We also recognize that we are not the sole custodians or interpreters of this history, which is why we will publicly share our initial research once it is complete in early December. We will then invite additional information from the broader community, including descendants of those enslaved by the property’s owners, as we continue to understand the history of this land and ensure that we remember and memorialize those whom existing narratives have excluded or forgotten.

To bolster our research, last month the University engaged Naeva Geophysics to undertake a ground penetrating radar (GPR) study of the area where the burial ground is believed to be located, according to historical references. Naeva undertook the study on September 16, and the results came back inconclusive, which is not unusual. GPR fails at times to detect the existence of graves or remains due to soil conditions and decomposition over time. Nevertheless, the historical significance of this research warranted the GPR investigation. While the historical research is ongoing, we are committed to responsibly managing the area of campus that is under study.

Ryland and Freeman
Research on Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman — also recommended by the Commission — recently commenced and will continue into the spring semester. This process will involve a wide range of research and engagement with a number of communities. I look forward to sharing a progress report in the spring, and I am grateful to Dr. Lee and the researchers assisting her for bringing their rigor, dedication, and expertise to these important studies.

Additional Academic Initiatives
This fall, the Provost’s Office invited faculty to develop and teach a spring 2020 course engaging students in our institutional history and its legacies. I am pleased to report that six courses will be taught this spring across a range of disciplines. There are also opportunities for students to engage with our ongoing institutional research during the school year and summer. For more information, please contact interim Senior Administrative Officer, Dr. Amy Howard.

I look forward to continuing to work together to examine, understand, and communicate our past more fully and inclusively.


Ronald A. Crutcher