The Pavilion gardens that grace each side of the Lawn once served very different purposes. Though today the beautiful gardens function as places for entertainment and reflection, they used to be spaces where slaves carried out all the work of daily life. The gardens were filled with lots of other buildings. Each professor or Hotelkeeper added buildings as they were needed: privies, smokehouses, washhouses, and quarters.Detached kitchens were built behind nearly every pavilion and hotel, because cooking in a basement was both dangerous and smoky. Only a few of these early buildings survived. The gardens would have also contained shanty town-like tents where enslaved laborers lived. Ultimately, these spaces were dusty, smelly, bustling workyards. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the Garden Club of Virginia designed the gardens present appearance.
There is only one plaque on grounds that recognizes a specific early African American laborer at the University, and it is for Henry Martin, the man who worked as the University’s bell ringer and janitor for more than 50 years. Martin was born a slave at Monticello on the same day Jefferson died, but was freed by the time he was hired at UVa. He lived most of his life near the University on 10th street. He had four daughters with his second wife, Patsy Washington Martin, and was a member of the Charlottesville First Baptist Church. Martin was beloved by the university community, and the student newspaper in 1915 claimed upon his death that he knew the name of every student.
An alumnus commented, “He knew his part in life and played it well… He also fully recognized that he was neither a professor, a student, nor a white man; that he did not own the University and that he could get along satisfactorily with someone else in his stead. To serve was his delight.” Another blatantly racist student wrote, “It seemed to me he was a worthy tenant of whiter clay.” It is important to remember that Martin was admired for being loyal to the university and particularly competent at his bell-ringing duties, not for any individual personality traits or actions.
Though UVa may be lauded for recognizing an African American worker, Martin’s story lies uncomfortably close to the “jolly, faithful slave” narrative that romanticizes the institutionalized racism and violence that free blacks faced after emancipation, particularly in the South.
Anatomical Lewiswas so-named by the University community because he cleaned the Anatomical Theater and dealt with the University’s medical cadavers. He lived in a room in the wood yard located behind Pavilion VII. Not only did Lewis endure a sordid job and poor living conditions, he was an outcast of the community.
Sadly, he was “regarded by the children very much as an ogre.” Whether he left the University by death or by sale is unknown. By 1860, Lewis no longer appears in University records. For all the research and accounts we have about enslaved laborers in the university, there are hundreds more that went undocumented and whose stories we’ll never know.
William and Isabella Gibbons were married slaves who worked at the University up until the Civil War. Enslaved husbands and wives were often owned by different families — but fortunately, William and Isabella were sold to two different families that lived in adjacent Lawn pavilions. Their story shows that even in the midst of nearly universal mistreatment from students and professors alike, the strength of the human spirit can still prevail.
In Virginia at the time, it was illegal to teach another man’s slave how to read and socially unacceptable to teach your own slave. However, William and Isabella used discarded books and secretly listened in on lessons to teach themselves how to read. William also received help from the young daughter of the professor who owned him.
After the war, Isabella became a schoolteacher and William founded a church in Washington, D.C. Naming the first year dorm building after the Gibbons family is one small step in the right direction as we aim to memorialize enslaved laborers on grounds.
Early UVA studentswere not allowed to bring their slaves from home, unlike students at many other Southern schools in the early 1800s. This didn’t stop members of UVA’s wealthy, white, all-male population from bringing their own slaves and housing them on the border of the University where they could easily be reached if needed.
It’s difficult to imagine what life was like for these slaves, within an arm’s reach of an institution dedicated to intellectual advancement while they themselves remained in bondage. In addition to tension between students and slaves, tensions arose between students and professors in the early years of the University.
The student body, coming from Southern plantations, largely consisted of young slaveholders — men who grew up with absolute power over the lives of other humans. This led to complete rebellion against any form of authority that tried to impose order on them, like professors or University policies. Another source of conflict was that many professors were from Europe where slavery had already been abolished. They were not accustomed to the institution of slavery, which was the true backbone of the Southern economy until the Civil War.
“I am very sorry indeed to hear of so poor a chance for hiring laborer,” Jefferson wrote. “It will be a serious embarrasment (sic) to me. I am in hopes you will have been able [t]o procure me some.”
The implications of slave trade such as Jefferson outlines in this letter have far-reaching impacts that are still lingering today. “Everything going on in the country right now, with race relations so volatile, we forget that the President of the United States owned slaves and dealt in slave trade,” Livingston said. “[The Founding Fathers] allowed this institution to exist, and the pain of it is still obvious in our country.”
Less well-known is the remarkable man who once fed our “founding foodie’s” refined palate: James Hemings. In the 18th century, Hemings was one of America’s most accomplished chefs. He was also Jefferson’s slave…
Paris was a city on the cusp of revolution. Talk of the rights of man filled the streets. And at some point, James and Sally Hemings learned a startling fact: Under French law, they could have sued for their freedom. But they choose not to do so…
Why not? “Family,” says Annette Gordon-Reed. “There was a real dilemma for many enslaved people: Do you take your freedom and separate yourself from your family?” Instead, the Hemings siblings agreed to return to America — and to slavery — with Jefferson in 1789…