Remarks at the Introducton of the Historical Marker, "A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History"
This is an occasion to talk about history, and to talk about justice.
At Washington and Lee we have a long and complex history. We have been around a long time. Our own history tracks the nation's history, through the Founding Period, the expansion to the West, the Civil War, the Civil Rights era and Vietnam, and up to today.
We therefore have a trove of stories covering almost three centuries. They help us understand who we are and the values that guide--or should guide--our actions. The story of Washington's gift, for example, and what that tells us not only about our University but also about Washington himself. Or the story of the Doremus family's generosity and the construction of Doremus Gym, and what that says about our speaking tradition and civility.
These are among the numerous stories that we tell time and again through the years. They are especially helpful in impressing upon newcomers the kind of community that they have joined - a community with a particular history, a community with a specific set of values, including justice, and a respect for others.
Embracing those values does not mean we always live up to them.
Acknowledging those times when we failed in the past can serve to strengthen our resolve for the future.
Today we are here because of a story that we have not told or, at least, told only rarely.
As you will read in greater detail on the center panel of this historical marker, Washington College received a bequest in 1826 from a wealthy Rockbridge County landowner and businessman named John Robinson. In the years prior to his death Robinson had been a patron of education in Rockbridge County. His gifts and pledges had supported both Anne Smith Academy, a classical school for women that existed in Lexington from 1807 to 1908, and Washington College. During his lifetime, Robinson's gifts helped fund the construction of the center building of the college, which is now Washington Hall.
Robinson's will, which had explicit instructions for the creation of a professorship in the sciences, directed that Washington College was to receive his entire estate and all his belongings.
Included in those belongings were, and I quote now from the will, "all the negroes of which I may die possessed, together with their increase..." These, then, were the enslaved men and women, girls and boys, whose ownership passed from John Robinson to Washington College. And these are the women and men, girls and boys, whose names you can read on the panels of this marker.
This is one of our stories, too, and we need to tell it as carefully and as completely as we tell all those stories about this institution.
In the summer of 2013 I asked a group to consider more fully than we had done in the past the history of African Americans at Washington and Lee. I did not know everything that this working group would find on the topic that brings us here today or on several others that we have begun to tell that will be different.
Around the time that group started its work, I had a conversation with Doug Harwood, local publisher and journalist and graduate of Washington and Lee. He was working on a story. He asked me whether the University ever owned slaves. He knew the answer. He had looked into this before. I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to be sure and to see the evidence and the details for myself.
He warned me about the powerful emotional reaction I would have when I opened the books and saw not only the names of the enslaved individuals but the dollar figure alongside them.
He was right.
I think most people associated with the university will look at what we are doing today and understand why we are doing it. A few, however, will undoubtedly accuse us of being politically correct. They are wrong. This is not politically correct; it is historically correct.
History is like that. We can't tell only those stories that make us feel good about ourselves. We can't ignore the stories that make us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable truths must be examined. Somehow we have to try to come to terms with those parts of our past that we wish had never happened, those events that we have come to regret. We tell them so that we may learn from them. Today we are taking an important step, but only a step, in meeting that obligation as we introduce this historical marker.
In just a moment, I will pause while the names on these documents are read aloud. Their names are here. And their ages. It is difficult to see these lists, recognizing that these were essentially inventories similar to what we might use to keep track of property, not human beings.
The day after this marker was placed here I received an email from a member of our community, and I think that the sentiments summarize what many of us have felt when we've first seen these lists. Here is what the person wrote:
"On the way in to the office this morning I stopped at the newly installed graphic next to Robinson Hall. Reading it brought me to tears. Seeing a dollar figure next to a person's name was a powerful reminder of the injustice once served on some our fellow human beings."
We must ask ourselves how this could ever have happened. We wonder how reasonable people could have ever believed that it was acceptable to claim ownership of another human person. We wonder how the men who led this institution at the time not only tolerated slavery, but, used these enslaved men and women to help maintain and fund a college. We must confront the knowledge that our institution has a history connected with the injustice of slavery.
Several weeks ago English professor Lesley Wheeler asked colleagues and students to suggest a poem that might be appropriate for this occasion. The selected poem is by an African American poet named Lucille Clifton. It is titled "at the cemetery, walnut grove planation south carolina, 1989," and we have asked Anthonia Adams to read it here today. (Audio of poetry reading is below.)
What gives this story its special power is that these lists force us to recognize that these were individuals: men and women, boys and girls, families. They had names. They all had names. Our recognition of these names, our act of speaking these names, is a step towards justice.
(President Ruscio paused here while members of the community read the names. This portion is available on the audio below.)
A couple of years ago, when we were going through what I might refer to as "the Chapel" controversy, I received a message from a young black alumnus. He was grateful we were addressing these matters. He said when he was here as a student, he often heard about what he called "their history" but not much about what he rightly called "my" history.
So, this is a step in the right direction. But as I said before it is a step only. I look forward to the day when the strands of individual histories are woven together into something we can call "our" history.
In placing this marker and in creating this memorial garden around it, we are recognizing that this story is very much a part of our history.
We know that there are many other stories still to be told. So this is not a time to congratulate ourselves for recognizing this moment of our history. Instead, we must see this as part of an ongoing - and long overdue - effort to tell the history of Washington and Lee courageously and completely, and to learn from it, and to always strive to make it a better institution, more just and truly respectful of all individuals.