Slavery and Washington and Lee University Historic Marker
This historic marker details the connection between Washington College (now Washington and Lee) and chattel slavery. The marker is the culmination of years of research and includes primary sources that show that the college received a bequest in 1826 by a slaveholder that included 84 enslaved persons. Records indicate that the college remained the owner of record of 67 enslaved persons eight years later. Finally, these records show that college administrators rented out the labor of these individuals and used the proceeds to help fund the college. The college profited from the labor as well as the eventual sale of these individuals between 1826 and 1852, when the college trustees sold the last two remaining slaves.
Backstory and Context
In 2013, the president of Washington and Lee assembled a group of historians and other scholars and asked them to investigate the history of the university as it related to African Americans-including the connection between slavery and the institution. This marker was one of the results of that investigation.
The following contains the full text of the historic marker, written by historians at Washington and Lee who studied the history of slavery and the institution and worked for many years to create this marker:
A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History: Washington and Lee University’s involvement with slavery is a regrettable chapter of its history that must nonetheless be confronted and examined. The most well-documented episode in that chapter is the 1826 bequest of 84 enslaved African Americans to Washington College from “Jockey” John Robinson, a prominent Rockbridge County landowner.
Robinson’s estate included “all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase,” and his will directed that these enslaved people “shall be retained, for the purposes of labour, . . . for the space of fifty years after my decease. . . . At the expiration of these fifty years the trustees aforesaid are released from all restraint as to the disposal of the negroes & may sell or retain them as the results of their labour shall demonstrate to be best.”
“A list of negroes belonging to the Estate of John Robinson recd at death time” from 1827 contains the names of 84 men, women, and children along with their ages, appraised value, and such additional details as whether or not they had been hired out by the college to members of the Lexington community, and for what amount of money....
“A list of slaves belonging to Washington College” from July 1834 shows that the college owned 67 enslaved persons.... The first half of this list includes each individual’s name, age, and “supposed value,” while the second half comprises the names of 28 individuals who were then being hired out by the college, along with the annual income they were earning for the institution.
In 1836, the Washington College trustees sold a large majority of the slaves it had received from Robinson to Samuel S. Garland, of Lynchburg, Virginia. During the ensuing 20 years, the college sold additional enslaved persons to local residents. Records indicate that as late as 1857, the college still owned three elderly, incapacitated people.
Kenneth P. Ruscio, Washington and Lee University’s 26th president (2006–2016), addressed this history in 2016 when he said: “At Washington and Lee, we learn from the past, and this is an episode from which there is much to learn. Acknowledging the historical record — and acknowledging the contributions of these individuals — requires coming to terms with, and accepting responsibility for, a part of our past that we wish had been different, but that we cannot ignore.”
Historic Timeline of African Americans at Washington and Lee, http://www.wlu.edu/presidents-office/issues-and-initiatives/timeline-of-african-americans-at-wandl accessed 5/1/2016
Images courtesy of Professor Barton Myers, Washington and Lee University