Ignorance Erases George Wythe at a Virginia Community College

George Wythe

by Suzanne Munson

Virginia Peninsula Community College recently announced the removal of the names of two historic American leaders from its buildings, George Wythe and Dr. Corbin Griffin, a surgeon for Virginia patriot soldiers, presumably because they once owned slaves. It should be noted that these were heroes of the American Revolution, not the Civil War, individuals who fought for this nation’s freedom from despotic foreign rule.

One wonders how much time school officials spent on their American history homework prior to this decision, particularly with regard to the great Founding Father George Wythe.

Yes, Wythe did inherit slaves and owned them for a while. But he also freed his slaves later in life, when he was legally able to do so, and provided generously for several of them in his will.

Further, as a state judge, he shocked his contemporaries by becoming the first and only judge to rule slavery illegal, based on Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. (Hudgins v. Wright, 1806). The ruling was overturned by a higher court, but it was a principled stab by Wythe at the evil institution.

Thomas Jefferson, mentored by Wythe, admired his abolitionist views, and wrote about Professor Wythe’s anti-slavery crusade among his students at the College of William & Mary Law School.

In researching Wythe’s life for his biography, Jefferson’s Godfather, I was astounded by his enormous contributions to the early success of the United States.  He signed and helped organize the Declaration of Independence, championed the Constitution when it could have failed ratification in Virginia, promoted America’s first religious freedom law, served admirably in the Continental Congress, led as Virginia’s Speaker of the House of Delegates, and was renowned for his patriotism and high moral character.

Educators have forgotten that Wythe was arguably the most influential teacher in American history.  As the country’s first law professor, he turned his school in Williamsburg into the nation’s first leadership training program for future statesmen.  At his death in 1806, his former students were virtually running the country.  He modeled the ideal of the ethical Servant Leader.

Less is known about surgeon Dr. Corbin Griffin, whose name was also removed from a building at the community college. But with his services as a doctor, more patriots were able to survive and continue their fight for this country’s freedom from a foreign power.

Virginia Peninsula Community College was previously named Thomas Nelson Community College.  Another Revolutionary War hero, Nelson risked his life and livelihood to sign the Declaration of Independence, along with Wythe and other courageous signers.

Community college officials say that the erasure of the names of Revolutionary War heroes from the school’s buildings is an effort to become more “welcoming, inclusive, and representative of our unique region.“ Instead, they are engaging in exclusion, the elimination of important facets of this country’s history.

George Wythe’s name is still honored at George Wythe Community College and George Wythe High School in Wytheville, Wythe County, Virginia. Here’s hoping that his contributions to America will continue to be recognized there.

Suzanne Munson is author of the George Wythe biography, “Jefferson’s Godfather:  The Man Behind and Man” and lectures frequently on the Jefferson-Wythe legacy.  (suzmunson01@gmail.com)