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VCU’s medical college depended on and profited from slavery, new report says

Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical college was “intimately connected” to the institution of slavery in the mid-1800s, according to a new report commissioned by the university.

Each year, the college owned or rented enslaved people who cooked food, cleaned classrooms, laundered clothes, stoked furnaces and maintained buildings.

The report, published last month, called the use of enslaved workers a “sad and troubling chapter” in the history of VCU’s medical college. It comes in response to a state law passed in 2021 that requires VCU and four other colleges to examine the extent to which slavery impacted their schools, to commemorate the enslaved people’s lives and to form a response.

The law directs the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Longwood University and Virginia Military Institute to do the same.

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With the report complete, VCU will now form a commission to determine its next step, school President Michael Rao told the board of visitors last month. It’s the latest action VCU has taken to reckon with its past. The school has removed names and symbols of people associated with the Confederacy and re-examined the human remains scattered in a well under a campus building.

“The university must acknowledge and thoughtfully examine the role that slavery played, has played and continues to play in human beings,” Rao said.

In 2021, then-Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law requiring the five public colleges built before the Civil War to examine their relationship with slavery. The law directs them to implement a scholarship or economic program for students with a connection to slavery in hopes of lifting low-income students out of poverty and correcting the wrongs that took place on college campuses, lawmakers said at the time.

VCU responded by commissioning a 74-page report written by a New York University professor, Peter J. Wosh, at a cost of $30,000.

Some of his findings, VCU already knew — that the medical college, founded in 1838, existed for nearly 30 years in what became the capital of the Confederacy, a city where slavery permeated many facets of government, business and life. And that enslaved workers known as “resurrectionists” dug up dead Black bodies to transport them to the college for medical dissection.

But Wosh’s work added detail and gathered historical information in a way never done before. Matt Conrad, VCU’s vice president for government relations, called the findings “painful and shameful.”

The medical college opened in 1838 as a division of Hampden-Sydney College. It became a public institution, the Medical College of Virginia, in 1854.

According to tax and census data, it routinely owned or rented between four and eight enslaved laborers each year from 1848 to 1864. In 1862, the city valued each of the college’s enslaved individuals at $600.

It’s highly likely, Wosh said, that enslaved workers built the Egyptian Building in 1844, since most of the local workforce at the time was enslaved. When MCV constructed a new infirmary in 1860, it contracted RB Woodward, an enslaver. It’s unclear if he used enslaved workers in construction, but the subcontractors he also hired enslaved people.

The college employed a “demonstrator of anatomy,” who was required to pay half the cost of an enslaved servant — the school paid the other half.

And the school’s deans and physicians became rich off the backs of enslaved labor. Among the school’s 23 physicians, 15 collectively owned at least 101 African Americans during their careers at MCV.

It’s unclear if students brought enslaved “manservants” with them to school. But most students lived in boarding houses, which depended on slaves for meals, the washing of clothes and the maintaining of living quarters. Most of the students came from slave-owning families.

Employees may have used their own slaves for work at the college. Caleb R. Newman, a steward, oversaw purchasing supplies, cooking, laundry, maintenance and the procuring of servants. He owned five people.

“MCV profited in both concrete and indirect ways from slavery,” Wosh wrote. The culture “permeated both the institution and the individuals connected with it.”

The college advertised itself to the “Owners and Hirers of Negroes,” and students from the north sought out MCV because it was friendly to the institution of slavery.

White patients received better care—they could choose any faculty member to treat them, and they could buy a private room. Black patients weren’t afforded such luxuries.

Rumors that the infirmary killed Black patients and used them for dissection spread far and wide. Even the Richmond Dispatch, a predecessor to The Times-Dispatch, noted discussion that sick Black people taken to the infirmary seemingly never came back alive.

To tamp down speculation, Levin Smith Joynes, dean of MCV, published an ad saying that no patient dying in the infirmary—white or Black—was sent to the dissecting room. Other records support his claim.

And all this occurred while MCV preached a message of philanthropy.

“MCV never reckoned with the contradictions between its often lofty and humanitarian rhetoric and its commitment to slavery during the antebellum period,” Wosh wrote.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Richmond was in ruins, the infirmary had closed and slavery no longer played a role at MCV.

Wosh said his report does not answer every question. It’s clear how MCV’s actions compared with other medical colleges in the South. And the identities of the enslaved are left largely unknown. An 1860 tax record lists no names, just ages, races and genders: a 45-year-old mixed-race woman, a 25-year-old Black woman, a 40-year-old Black man.

How others are responding

The five colleges directed to research their relationship with slavery have completed various levels of work.

Longwood University has started a project called the Bicentennial Initiative to better understand the role of African Americans on campus, a school spokesperson said. Longwood was founded in 1839 as Farmville Female Seminary.

When the Union Army arrived in April 1865, it burned school records, the spokesperson said. As a result, Longwood has little historical information on the use of enslaved labor. Scant evidence shows college leaders engaged in the practice of leasing enslaved women for domestic work.

William & Mary began to study its association with slavery in 2009 when it commissioned the Lemon Project, named for a man owned by the college. Last year, William & Mary unveiled a 45-foot-long memorial to the enslaved.

The school has determined it owned or hired more than 100 African Americans between its formation in 1693 and the end of the Civil War. Many are known only by their first names.

William & Mary has started two endowments for need-based scholarships for students with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery. They’re called the Lemon scholarship and the Anne R. Willis scholarship — named for the wife of a longtime faculty member.

UVa has identified more than 4,000 enslaved laborers on its campus. A school spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the university’s response.

VMI had a close relationship with the Confederacy — its cadets fought in the Battle of New Market, and Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a professor there. A spokesperson for VMI did not respond to a request for comment.

VCU’s report is just one piece in the university’s effort to come to terms with its past.

In 2020, it began removing the names, plaques and busts along campus that honored members of the Confederacy. Last year, he began inspecting with careful reverence the human remains found in the Marshall Street well. It hopes to determine some biographical information about the people, perhaps even their place of birth.

A next step from VCU’s commission is expected by the end of the academic year.

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