Thoughts on Slavery and the University of Virginia

The history of African Americans at the University of Virginia in those early days has not yet been fully written. However, I’d like to share with you a passage from my 2007 book A Guide to Historic Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia in which I discuss slavery in Albemarle County during the antebellum era.

As in the rest of Virginia and the South, slave labor was the foundation of Albemarle County’s agricultural prosperity and growing industrial success. In the years after the Revolution, many white Southerners questioned the long-term social stability—not to mention the morality—of a society based on the enslavement of others, but few owners of slaves acted upon those feelings. Slaves were an extremely valuable commodity in the antebellum South. Even the country’s founding fathers failed to live up to the strength of their convictions on this issue. In spite of his strong feelings about slavery, Thomas Jefferson allowed only four slaves to “escape” during his lifetime and freed only five in his will. James Madison never freed his slaves, though he had discussed such a plan with his secretary, Edward Coles.

This same Edward Coles of Enniscorthy was the first man from Albemarle to free all of his slaves during his lifetime. In 1819, Coles moved with his twenty inherited slaves to Edwardsville, Illinois, where he set them up as free men on their own farms. Coles himself eventually became governor of Illinois, where he led a successful campaign to prevent slavery from ever becoming legal in that state. Several individuals from Albemarle freed their slaves in their wills, among them Dr. Charles D. Everett of Belmont, who provided for the settlement of his slaves in Pennsylvania, and John Terrell, who directed his heir to send his slaves to Liberia upon his death.

The Albemarle Auxiliary Colonization Society was a branch of a national organization with the goal of returning freed blacks to Liberia. (1) The group was active in the first half of the nineteenth century. But in Albemarle, there seemed to be no solution to the dilemma between financial dependence and moral behavior. The numbers of slaves and slave owners grew, until by 1860, out of a population of 26,625 [people], 12,103 were white and 14,522 black (among those were 606 free blacks). Most strikingly, as John Hammond Moore points out in his book Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727–1976 (p. 124), the percentage of county residents owning slaves grew from 61 percent in 1820 to 78 percent in 1860.

Jefferson expressed the conflict well when he wrote in 1820 regarding the Missouri question and slavery, “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”(2)


(1) In the early nineteenth century the American Colonization Society led a movement to “repatriate” American blacks to Africa. Settlement of the colony of Liberia began in 1822, and in 1847 the colony declared itself an independent state. The capital of the country is Monrovia, which was named after Albemarle resident James Monroe, who was president at the time Liberia was settled. Approximately 3,700 freed slaves from Albemarle County immigrated to Liberia from 1822 to 1861.

(2) Thomas Jefferson, discussing the Missouri question and slavery, to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in Quotations on Slavery and Emancipation, (accessed 8/26/2011).

As I have written these biographies, I have pondered the issue of slavery which forms a subtext for any discussion of antebellum Southern society. To omit direct discussion of slavery in these biographies is not to assert that antebellum Southerners were right or justified in enslaving millions of people, and it is not to excuse their actions. My goal is to offer only brief factual background information on these U.Va. men, many of whom were the movers and shakers of this country from 1825 through the rest of the nineteenth century. So as you read, please keep in mind that, though it is probably not specifically mentioned, the Southern students have a background which would encourage them to believe that slavery is justified and moral.

Because the majority of the University of Virginia students were from wealthy Southern families who had made their money in agriculture, it follows that many students had grown up having daily interactions with enslaved people. The enslaved and free blacks of Albemarle County, VA, did most of the chores at the University, including gardening, laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc. Often the professors, even those originally from England and other foreign countries, joined the Southerners in support of the institution of slavery by purchasing slaves for their personal employment. It is no surprise then that, as we’ve seen, a large percentage of U.Va. men supported the Confederacy in the Civil War, and that many died while in Confederate service.

Further reading:

  • Ford, Benjamin P. A settlement known as Canada; archaeological investigations at the Foster site. VDHR File No. 2004-0046. Rivanna Archaeological Services, LLC, 2006.
  • Helo, Ari & Peter Onuf, “Jefferson, morality, and the problem of slavery.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, v. 60, no. 3 (July 2003), p. 583-614.
  • Morgan, Philip D., “Morality and slavery.” European Review, v.14 (2006), p. 393-399.
  • PBS. Conditions of antebellum slavery, 1830-1860. [website] (Accessed 8/25/2011).
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