The Atlantic

UVA's Troubling Past

As college students return to Charlottesville after violent clashes there earlier this month, the university community wrestles with the legacies of the school’s founder and history with slavery.
Source: Tim Dodson / The Cavalier Daily / Reuters

Just 10 days after violent clashes tore across Charlottesville, Virginia, college students there headed to their first day of classes of the fall semester. Many of the University of Virginia’s nearly 17,000 undergraduates arrived with a purpose: to recover their school from white supremacists who had put a national spotlight on their town.

This recovery has been described in terms of reclamation: UVA’s Student Council president, Sarah Kenny, told freshmen gathered at Sunday’s convocation that a student-led vigil held a few days earlier enabled students to “reclaim the lawn,” while Monday night’s Black Student Alliance march sought to “reclaim these grounds built by our ancestors from the taint of white supremacy.”

Reclaim what, exactly?

The University of Virginia’s shorthand moniker may be “UVA,” but its community knows the school as “,” a designation that shows how deeply linked its founder, Thomas Jefferson, is to its core identity. And this link is a point of pride, but also a paradox. Jefferson declared “all men are created equal,” yet he was also a slave owner. So while members of and brought to campus, Chad Wellmon, a professor of Germanic studies who watched that march from his on-campus home, said he understood what drew the alt-right leaders to the school’s grounds: “They played on the complex, endlessly enlightening, and troubling history of Jefferson.”

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