The social-justice war has been unfolding at a furious pace at the University of Virginia. Earlier this month, UVa alumni Bert Ellis wrote a widely disseminated email decrying the posting on the door of a 4th year student of her room on the lawn a sign saying “Fuck UVa.” When the administration declined to act to take down the sign — indeed, when it assigned monitors to prevent anyone else from taking it down — Ellis called essentially for alumni defunding of the university. Before long, several more “Fuck UVa” signs appeared on Lawn doors. Not long afterwards, the Board of Visitors adopted a resolution calling for the university to “contextualize” the statue of founder Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he had been a slaveholder “to tell the broader story about his contributions to the University, the nation, and the world, as well as contradictory writings and actions that were an integral part of his life and work.”
About a week ago, 200 alumni signed a letter written by Thomas M. Neale, class of ’74 and a founding partner of Murray Hill Associates, responding to the decision to contextualize the statute resolution. With minor edits, I present that letter here. — JAB
Many universities across America are renaming endowments, removing statues, and eradicating the names of prominent alumni/ae and benefactors whose names adorn university buildings and academic departments. The men and women whose names are being removed do not meet the ethical criteria or societal norms of our 21st century culture according to the Faculty, Administrative leadership, and governing Boards of these universities. In short, these decisions are made, and judgments decreed, based upon revisionist historical analyses rather than the ethical norms and moral tenets that were prevalent during these men and women’s lifetimes.
I will cite two of the best known incidents since one is germane to a prominent UVA alumnus and the other is from a nearby respected university undergoing similar internal critical Progressive self-analysis:
- Princeton University has decided to remove Princeton (and UVA Law) alumnus President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs due to his “racist thinking and policies.”
- Washington and Lee University has already removed General Robert E. Lee’s statue from university sponsored events. The Board of Visitors is now considering a faculty petition to remove Lee’s name entirely from the University after 150 years since then Washington College was renamed after his death. The stated reason is General Lee’s position as the preeminent leader of Confederate forces during the Civil War, and his ownership of slaves at his Arlington, VA plantation (which he inherited from his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, but later freed). Three tenured African American W&L faculty members also want President George Washington removed from the university’s name since he was a slaveowner (Washington’s slaves were freed upon his death).
George Washington and Robert E. Lee were most certainly complicit in the moral stain of slavery. So were literally all U.S. citizens who lived from Maryland south prior to 1865. England did not abolish slavery throughout the British Empire until 1834 through the Slavery Abolition Act, France did so in 1848, and Holland in 1863 to name just a few Western countries. This obviously does not mean slavery was remotely justifiable. However, it does point out that the mores of the times undeniably were drastically different from today. The abolition of slavery also did not mean that blacks were accepted as de facto “equal” members of society in any of these countries until late into the 20th century, not dissimilar to the United States which codified segregation through Jim Crow in the South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress.
I will come full circle to the University of Virginia. The “cancel culture” has now permeated the University with a vengeance. On Friday, September 11 the University Board of Visitors voted to enact the following:
- Rename the Curry School due to J. L. M. Curry’s links to the Jim Crow policies of Virginia that existed during his lifetime.
- Remove and relocate the George Rogers Clark statue on The Corner, contiguous to the University Grounds, since he was a military commander who fought American Indian tribes.
- Rededicate or remove the Frank Hume Memorial “Whispering” Wall outside of Newcomb Hall since Mr. Hume served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
- Remove UVA law alumnus Henry Withers’ name from Withers-Brown Hall near the School of Law since Mr. Withers was also a Confederate soldier as well as a slaveholder.
- Plan to pass a resolution authorizing University leadership to work with historians and other experts to “contextualize” the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda. Specifics remain vague.
Enough is enough. Where does this end?
If Messrs. Curry, Hume, and Withers are to be condemned and eradicated from the University’s history, should we not remove ALL University administrators prior to 1865? To be intellectually honest, should we not extend this to removing all references to University administrators prior to 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, since UVA was operating under the prevailing Jim Crow laws of Virginia and excluded blacks from admittance? I am sure there are numerous examples, but I will offer three for the consideration of the University’s Racial Equity Task Force:
- Rename Cabell Hall. Former Rector Joseph Carrington Cabell oversaw the creation of the Rotunda and Lawn from 1817-1819 with Thomas Jefferson. He therefore knowingly utilized African American slave labor during the construction of all buildings.
- Rename Alderman Library. Former President Edwin Alderman oversaw UVA from 1904-1931 during the heart of the Jim Crow era. He presided over a racially segregated University. President Alderman also delivered the memorial speech for Woodrow Wilson on December 15, 1924 before a joint session of Congress. Wilson, as noted elsewhere, is now persona non grata given his racist ideology, which by inference means President Alderman most probably sympathized with President Wilson’s racial philosophy regarding people of color.
- Rename Newcomb Hall. During former President John Lloyd Newcomb’s tenure from 1931-1947 the University remained a decidedly racist institution forbidding admittance to any black applicants. As a related footnote, eradicate any reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s June 1940 Final Exercises graduation speech during President Newcomb’s term as University President. FDR presided over a segregated US military during WWII while also illegally interning hundreds of thousands US citizens of Japanese descent during the war.
The signatories and I would like to have the Board of Visitors succinctly and unequivocally issue a letter of support for Thomas Jefferson. We are sending this letter before the Racial Equity Task Force finalizes its plan to “contextualize” Mr. Jefferson’s statue on the Lawn. We condemn any further attempts to “contextualize” Thomas Jefferson.
We are all aware of Mr. Jefferson’s accomplishments, but for the record, we would like to cite a few:
- Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
- Member of the Virginia House of Delegates and House of Burgesses
- Governor of Virginia
- Author of the Declaration of American Independence
- Congressman for Virginia in the Continental Congress
- Ambassador to France
- Secretary of State
- Vice President of the United States
- President of the United States
- Founder of the University of Virginia
If Thomas Jefferson needs to be “contextualized” then so do 100% of all Southern leaders prior to the Civil War. This should be extended to 20th century leaders if they presided over universities, businesses, towns, counties, villages or military units that practiced segregated policies. Throw in U.S .presidents prior to 1964 who did not make ending Jim Crow a priority. This is not hyperbole. It is a logical extension of the Racial Equity Task Force’s recommendations.
We ask again….where does this end?
The reality is that history is rife with countries and leaders who enacted policies that would be considered horrific by today’s moral precepts. We should not ignore these moral failings on the part of countries and leaders when viewed by today’s ethical criteria. Conversely, we must not erase the laudable aspects of leaders from these eras who were considered exemplary during their lifetime, nor should we continually berate them if they don’t live up to today’s mores. Slavery was a moral stain on US history…..as well as ANY country that [engaged in]this evil practice. That does not make all prominent leaders of these countries during the era when slavery was legal moral pariahs or individuals worthy of unceasing and relentless denigration.
Thomas Jefferson is among the most accomplished political leaders in U.S. history. He and George Washington are generally considered to be the preeminent Founding Fathers. We the undersigned unequivocally praise Mr. Jefferson and are justifiably proud of his herculean contributions to our Republic. We revere him as the Founder of the University of Virginia.
We ask the Board of Visitors to stop the unending self-flagellation about Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding past, acknowledge his amazing lifetime of public service, and thank him for founding our University.
Thank you for listening.
Thomas M. Neale