RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A recently-released report commissioned by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) found the university’s medical college was “intimately connected” with slavery from its founding in 1838 through the Civil War. The enslaved individuals were surmised to have played key roles in maintaining and ensuring the success of the institution.

This study was done to assist VCU in the work to “grapple with a troubled and problematic past,” and suggests further comparison is needed between similar southern institutions — such as the Medical College of the State of South Carolina, the Medical College of Georgia, the University of Louisiana and the University of Nashville — in order to look at the college’s experience against a broader scope.

According to the report, the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) owned and/or rented between four and eight enslaved individuals, at least, since the erection of the Egyptian Building in 1844, according to City tax lists. The college was also found to routinely hire out and sell enslaved people to generate income, further cementing its involvement and profiting both concretely and indirectly from slavery, the report noted.

The enslaved people cooked, cleaned, did patients’ laundry, maintained furnaces for the building’s warmth, kept up the college grounds and more — all contributing to the overall success of the college, the report found.

“This culture permeated both the institution and the individuals connected with it,” the report stated. “The Board of Visitors overwhelmingly consisted of wealthy enslavers. Forced labor contributed to their substantial fortunes. The faculty grew up in privileged circumstances. Enslaved persons managed their households and supported their private medical practices.”

The enslaved individuals were also found to have been used to procure African American bodies to be used as cadavers in student instruction, not only for MCV, but for the University of Virginia, as well. The report noted that the bodies were routinely dug up by grave robbers working for the college’s Anatomical Department, from places such as the Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground, where many of the bodies of formerly enslaved people were laid to rest.

Additional reports revealed that dozens of bodies were taken in by the VCU medical college each year, creating issues with the disposal of large quantities of human remains.

“A large refuse well on East Marshall Street constituted the final resting place for most anatomical specimens and cadavers once they satisfied their purposes,” the report stated. “Departmental demonstrators and their enslaved helpers unceremoniously dumped human remains down the well. This practice only came to light generations later when an excavation project uncovered the skeletal remains of these subjects in conjunction with the construction of the Kontos Medical Sciences Building.”

Dr. Peter Wosh, a former Clinical Professor at New York University, was tapped to handle the report. In an interview with 8News on Monday, he said it was a highly impactful study of history.

“A lot of this, while maybe not surprising, was really new, detailed information,” he said. “I think it’s really important for institutions to grapple with that past and not to ignore it, and to understand that institutions that exist today were built upon some really bad things that happened in the past, and it’s only, I think, when you do that, you’re really capable of moving forward as an organization or society.”

Wosh said he was also horrified to learn of the treatment of Black patients in MCV’s infirmary.

“[They] were used, basically, as experimental displays for a lot of students, and then the results were written up in medical journals at the time by faculty,” he said. “It was totally done without consent.”

In the days before this report was released to the public, VCU President Michael Rao released a statement to the college community. He noted that the institution and its leaders were “profoundly sorry for MCV’s history with the institution of slavery,” and that work was underway to “determine our path forward.”

This analysis was conducted after the passage of a 2021 law, requiring the Commonwealth’s five oldest colleges and universities to research their historical involvement with slavery and “provide a tangible benefit for individuals or communities with connections to enslaved labor to break cycles of poverty.”

The College of William & Mary, Longwood University, Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia were also called upon to conduct this work.

8News received the following statement from Longwood University:

Longwood was founded in 1839 as private Farmville Female Seminary and its first building was constructed in the early 1840s and no longer stands. In 1884, the Commonwealth of Virginia took over the college and named it the State Female Normal School, a public institution. 

We have an ongoing research project called the Bicentennial Initiative to explore and interpret Longwood’s institutional history and to better understand the roles of African Americans on campus. 

When the Union Army moved through Farmville in April 1865, they burned the records of the Farmville Female College, so we lack institutional records that shed light on the use of enslaved labor. Research in other archival collections has uncovered scant documentary evidence that college leaders engaged in the practice of leasing enslaved women for domestic work.

A spokesperson with the College of William & Mary shared this statement with 8News:

William & Mary remains dedicated to telling a fuller, more consequential account of our history and those efforts align with the requirements of Va. Code §23.1-615.1.

Since 2009 the university’s Lemon Project has advanced research and scholarship on the 300-year relationship between African Americans and the university. As part of that initiative, last spring William & Mary dedicated Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Both William & Mary’s Bray School Lab and James Monroe’s Highland property – which the university owns – have comprehensive and ongoing efforts underway to connect and partner with descendants of enslaved individuals connected with our communities.

The university also has two related endowed scholarships. Both were established during FY 2022 using private funds and, following the guidelines established by the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia, will provide need-based scholarship support. 

Virginia Military Institute’s research is also ongoing, according to a spokesperson:

In 2020, VMI began research to identify the enslaved population associated with VMI during the period 1839-1865. While preliminary research indicates that the number of enslaved persons owned by VMI is likely less than 10, the number of hired enslaved persons is anticipated to be significantly larger. A third category—the enslaved persons owned by or working for contractors employed at VMI– will be difficult to determine. VMI will continue to develop its understanding of the enslaved population through internal research which will include faculty, staff, administrators, and students. This collaborative effort is expected to engage organizations of mutual interest as well as contracted researchers. One of our undergraduates did his senior honors project on this issue. More details on his research, which was part of the greater VMI research effort, are available on our website.

While research is ongoing, VMI has two pre-existing public programs interpreting the experience of enslaved persons. The life and living conditions of enslaved persons on the eve of the American Civil War is explored at the Jackson House Museum, a home once owned by VMI professor Thomas Jackson in Lexington. Eighty miles to the north at the Bushong Farm, located on New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (NMBSHP), programming is being developed around the life of an enslaved family of three. VMI has owned NMBSHP since 1964 and the Jackson House since 2011. Both facilities are open to the public.

VMI and the VMI Foundation, a 501(c)3 separate from the Institute, are in the process of working through the details of a scholarship program that would be administered in accordance with the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorials Program.