Excavating Our Past

Those with an interest in our campus’ history have likely heard the tale of this campus’ past as an abandoned amusement park. A perusal of the campus’ architecture website will show you that before Boatwright Beach served as the entrance to our library, it housed an old playhouse, where Richmonders would go for amusement to escape the city. It also was home to a merry-go-round, a Venetian gondola, and what was the only electric shooting range in the country at the time. According to this same website, President Boatwright and the Board of Trustees purchased the land that formerly housed Westhampton Park in 1910, with campus construction beginning in 1911. In 1914, the coordinate colleges replaced the amusement park, and the university opened its Westhampton and Richmond doors to its carefully selected students.

Fast-forward 102 years, and the tale of the origins of campus is often framed in terms of an underdog story. To open a campus so far west was brave and daring at the time, placed at the last stop on the streetcar line and marking the virtual end of civilization. The contrasting images brought to one’s mind of a swampy amusement park and a serious academic institution is quite remarkable, our campus’s jovial background casting a romanticized light on the place we call our second home.

The story of a post-bellum amusement park – a fun oasis and a harmless pastime – is typically the only narrative included in day-to-day campus dialogue about our past. But there is another tale known to several at this university and yet held in obscurity.

The story you are about to read was not excessively difficult to trace. The Virginia Baptist Historical Society, which provided much of the documentation and facts, is easily accessible next to Boatwright Library, and upon entrance, Michael Whitt, special projects assistant for the VBHS, greeted me with facts about our campus. This is the narrative I was able to piece together using their resources and knowledge, as well as other sources noted where appropriate.

Before Westham Park: Physical History of our Campus

In the antebellum period, the area that now envelops campus was no amusement park. Mr. Ben Green’s plantation encompassed several hundred acres, extending from Three Chopt Road to the north, to the Higgenbottom Plantation bordering the river to the south and west. His plantation included the entirety of what is now our campus, from the business school to the sorority cottages, New Fraternity Row to the Gateway Apartments. As we all know from treks up Mt. Modlin, our campus is anything but flat, and as such, Mr. Green’s land was not suitable for an agricultural plantation. Because Mr. Green could not grow profitable tobacco, his business was lumber.

Fortunately for Mr. Green, his plantation housed abundant natural resources. There was no shortage of trees on his holdings, and the small but sufficient Westham Creek ran through his plantation. If dammed, this creek could power a sawmill to efficiently produce his lumber. Around 1840, Mr. Green ordered his slaves to do exactly that – his able-bodied slaves dammed the creek and built his sawmill along the resulting lake’s southeastern edge. For the duration of the operation of his plantation, these slaves would also haul felled trees from all corners of his plantation, up and down the hills of campus, and eventually deliver them to the southeastern edge of the lake they themselves formed.

Yes, our beloved Westhampton Lake was indeed created by slaves, established as the millpond of a slave owner.

This is an unsurprising revelation for a campus in the South, but what is notable is that so few people seem to know that Mr. Green’s slaves worked and sweat on the topsoil of our campus. This was where they lived their lives, and likewise, it was where many of them died.

The sawmill and dam were situated in the approximate location of present-day Tyler Haynes Commons. According to a 1935 book titled “Zion Town – A Study in Human Ecology” published in 1935, “some few years ago” a group of laborers dug a hollow just behind the dam. In doing so, they unearthed piles of the bones and human skulls of Mr. Green’s slaves. This site is considered to be the burial ground of the slaves who worked Mr. Green’s plantation, a site that students pass by and walk over every day.

In the 1940s, the same thing happened a second time – workers digging a hollow unearthed the bones of several bodies near the same area behind the Commons. These bones also belonged to Mr. Green’s slaves, and were found along with a small marker engraved with the lettering “D.F.” According to an article published in The Collegian dated Nov. 7, 1947, it was thought at the time that this inscription was meant to denote “Died of Flu.” This same article also reported the speculation that the bones may have belonged to William and Mary football players, but this assertion has since proved to be unfounded. Both historical facts about the university timeline, as well as analysis of the bones themselves have shown that these belonged to people of hard slave labor, Whitt said.

The records of Mr. Green’s plantation are unfortunately incomplete, and we do not know exactly how many slaves worked the land of our campus. However, with the quantity of land Mr. Green owned, he would have owned a substantial number.

The history of campus in the post-bellum era is detailed in a self-published piece by Stuart Wheeler, entitled “Absolute Beauty: Frederic William Boatwright, Ralph Adams Cram, and the Arts and Crafts Neogothic Architechture of the University of Richmond.” According to this source, in 1897, William Washington Browne purchased the land to the south of Green’s millpond – 634 acres of land known as Westham Farm, which included the southern parts of campus. Browne, born in 1849, lived the beginnings of his life as a slave on a Georgian plantation, joining the Union army at the age of 14. After pursuing an education in Wisconsin and teaching school in Georgia and Alabama, he settled in Richmond and became the head of a group called the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers. The True Reformers was a secret order that developed in the reconstruction era, and at its height had 15,000 members, employed 250 people, and ran the 150-guest Hotel Reformer in Richmond. The group also formed the first African American bank in America, created in 1888.

In 1893, Browne proposed to create a retirement home for poor African Americans, and this quickly became his chief ambition. He purchased with his own funds Westham Farm, including the southern portion of campus, for exactly this purpose. Browne selected the land because of its location, a mere 6 miles from Richmond, and its proximity to Westham River Road, presently River Road. Unfortunately, he died in December of 1897 of skin cancer, leaving the management of the land to the True Reformers.

The grandson of the new president of the True Reformers, Thomas W. Taylor, took charge of the land on which the retirement home stood. Though he supported the home for many years, by 1910 the True Reformers was facing financial ruin, which Wheeler attributed to poor leadership. The land was sold to John Landstreet of the Westham Land Corporation, who offered 100 acres of his holdings to Richmond College, with an option to purchase additional land. At an evening meeting at the Jefferson Hotel, the Richmond College Board of Trustees accepted the gift, voting to purchase more acreage for just under $18,000. Thus, a site that for 13 years had played an important role in the positive reconstruction of African American communities became part of an all-white institution.

Spiders over Time: Developing Campus Culture

Richmond College was founded in 1830, long before the move to Westham was conceived. Robert Rhyland founded this college as a Baptist institution, and while he himself was inextricably entrenched in a slave society, Richmond College was revolutionary in one respect: Rhyland would not allow his students to bring their slaves to college with them. Other Virginia institutions, such as William and Mary, allowed students to be accompanied by their slaves provided they pay an additional small fee. Though this seems but a small accomplishment in hindsight, that no slaves were brought to campus was quite an anomaly for a Southern institution.

However, the power of the institution of slavery far exceeded the actual exploitation of labor. Slavery in some form or another has been a feature of human civilization seemingly from the inception of society itself, and many societies have featured slaves and slave labor in varying forms. But there is a clear difference between a society with slaves, and a slave society, as explained by Julian Hayter, professor of leadership studies:

“In a slave society, everything revolves around institutional slavery. A slave society’s institutional, political, and social culture is dictated by slavery. It is the driving force behind everything that particular society produces. These schools are a product of that slave society. No slavery, no Virginia. No slavery, no University of Richmond. No slavery, no UVA. And it’s not just the labor, it’s everything it engenders. People were able to assume an exorbitant amount of the political and cultural power in this place. They had the leisure time because slaves were giving them the time to invest. People treat slavery and race as an addendum to American history. These institutions treat slavery and race as if it’s a footnote to their development. It’s not. It’s central.”

The University spent its youth seeped in the culture of a slave society, and for that reason, it is impossible to divorce campus’s institutional history from the institution of slavery itself. After the war, the Southern culture adopted what Whitt described as the “lost cause mentality.” This idea romanticized the Southern fight during the war, and attempted to write the history of Civil War battles in terms of Southern pride. This narrative structure transformed Southern veterans from planters into knights who fought for the cause. Whitt said he believed that the development of this mentality was little more than a cover, and that today, there is little separation between Confederate pride and deliberate racism. “There existed a desire among some to ‘Make the South great again,’ and it still exists in part today,” Whitt said.

Racism in the post-bellum era was a mechanism of entitlement and privilege, designed to ensure that the lowest white person was always a step above the most advanced black person, Whitt said. Virginia institutions were very much entwined in building such mechanisms.

Virginia institutions like UVA, William and Mary, and University of Richmond began to develop the ideological frameworks to justify the perpetuation of racism and Jim Crow, Hayter said. These institutions lead the way in racial science. Pseudoscientific thought, like scientific racism, social Dawinism and eugenics came out of institutions like ours. The anti-miscegenation statutes that forbade interracial marriage developed in part from these institutions as well, Whitt said.  Donors who have been memorialized on campus buildings, including Rhyland, Thomas, and E. Claiborne Robins, all had connections to slavery or segregation. Our university has recently hired an archivist whose job is to investigate the ties between our institution and the development of these racial barriers – the specific narrative is still emerging.

On our campus, the Southern mentality was evident through much of the 20th century, and even our spider mascot was entrenched in the system. Colonel Spidey, our mascot through much of the first half of the century, appeared at sporting events and in yearbooks clad in a gray Confederate uniform. His presence is especially prevalent in the 1949 edition of “The Web,” the title of the former campus yearbook. In this edition, Colonel Spidey graces the cover of the book, as well as appears in every section divider. This predecessor of WebstUR was a manifestation of Southern pride and racial elitism, and an isolated movement to re-introduce him to campus culture occurred only 10 years ago, Whitt said.

Today, the remnants of racism are still felt by many students of color, though they may seem invisible or trivial to the majority of students. Macda Gossa, a black sophomore from Ethiopia, said she had never experienced racism in any form before coming to our campus for college.

“Coming here, race wasn’t something I considered at all,” Gossa said. “But when I got here, the way the school promoted diversity on its website and what I saw on campus did not match. The school really sells diversity, but it isn’t really diverse as far who they reach out to for student selection.”

The minimalistic diversity on this campus creates a particular type of atmosphere for these students. “I’ve been the only black person in most of my classes, and that puts a certain pressure on you,” Gossa said. “You feel like you’re representing a whole race. And there’s always the risk of furthering the misconception that black people are not as academically gifted as white students if you slip up one day.” Richmond delivers in terms of academics, Gossa said, but the institution lacks the open-mindedness that she craved to find in college.

Gossa acknowledged that many people who deny the existence of modern racism on college campuses would likely dismiss her concerns as hypersensitive. “When people use the word hypersensitivity, it’s a lack of empathy,” she said. “They don’t face these problems, and they don’t understand them. But it affects my life and my everyday experience here.”

Moving Forward

Ignoring narratives of campus, whether this obfuscation is purposeful or negligent, provides little to no reconciliation or unity on campus, and further progress cannot occur without widespread knowledge of our school’s institutional memory. The careful consideration of our campus’s legacy is in the best interest of our school, Hayter said, because until we do this, our status as an elite and intellectual institution cannot be taken seriously.

“We are creating a core contingent of future disgruntled alumni – people who are upset with the way this institution is not dealing with the diversity that it brought about over the last 10 years,” Hayter said. “It is immoral to change an admissions process to bring about diversity and not create institutional apparatuses to allow that diverse community to thrive. And I think there are scores of students on this campus who feel that something is wrong.”

Progress, of course, occurs incrementally, and our school has made significant strides towards inclusivity over the course of its existence.

“You would be a fool to deny the progress this school has made,” Hayter said. “But the only way you continue to make progress is to be critical in a positive way of the way this school has grown. Growth is not going to happen axiomatically. The types of progress this school has made towards inclusivity didn’t happen organically – people forced it. And a lot of people weren’t ready for it when it happened. But you’ve got to be out in front of the trend in that way. It’s critical that this school ask, ‘How do we get in front of the next trend?’”

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