Leadership & Governance

The KKK Once Gave UVa $1,000. These Professors Want the University to Admit It.

August 15, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, says that the university’s administration was presented with evidence that the Ku Klux Klan gave $1,000 to the university in 1921 but that it hasn’t acknowledged the donation.

The torches. The chants. The racial and anti-Semitic slurs. The mob that circled a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus on Friday night seemed all too familiar to those who know the university’s history with white supremacists.

Nearly 100 years ago, torches and racial hatred filled the streets of Charlottesville at the city’s first Ku Klux Klan meeting. They, too, found a rallying point in Mr. Jefferson. That year, 1921, the Klansmen paid homage to the university that would go on to educate some of white supremacy’s modern leaders by making a gift of $1,000.

Professors are working to uncover what was done with the money. But they say the university has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge those ties.

In late July, Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies, found mention of the Klan’s gift in a 1921 edition of College Topics, the forerunner to today’s Cavalier Daily. Despite research by the various campus and city commissions on racial history, the donation, which today would amount to more than $13,000, has not been recognized by the university in the decades since, she said.

In the article, the university’s then-president, Edwin Alderman, gave his "hearty thanks" for the Klan’s gift, and signed his appreciation with the closing "Faithfully yours."

The gift was delivered by the pastor of a local church with a letter from Klansmen that said the group did so "believing in the highest principles of liberty, justice, truth and fraternity among mankind … and filled with the deepest devotion for the University as an institution which inculcates virtue and fosters pure American patriotism."

Ms. Schmidt shared this information with Louis Nelson, associate provost for outreach, who took it to the university’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan asked Mr. Nelson to deliver a memo with details of the gift before 5 p.m. on August 2, Ms. Schmidt said, just two days before the president’s letter to the university warning of the coming "Unite the Right" rally.

"She doesn’t mention the direct relationship that UVa had with a white-terror organization," Ms. Schmidt said. "We want to go protest the legacy of white supremacy that UVa helped create, and she’s not even acknowledging any relationship. That’s unacceptable."

When asked by email about the donation, the chronology of events alleged by Ms. Schmidt, and whether the university planned to publicize it, Anthony P. de Bruyn, a university spokesman, issued this statement:

"The University of Virginia has acknowledged that controversy has been part of its history, and we continue to strive to learn from it and to improve our current environment through open and constructive dialogue. In 2013, UVA formed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to explore its relationship to slavery and enslaved people and to make recommendations for steps UVA can take in response to this history. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that the Board of Visitors approved this past June is one example. The University community will continue to reflect on our history as we work toward enhancing our inclusive living and learning environment."

Not Their Home

By not flatly stating that the university has severed all ties with its racially tainted past and by encouraging students and professors to ignore demonstrations like the one on Saturday, Ms. Schmidt said, the administration allows hate groups to believe they can still find a home in Charlottesville.

"UVa needs to acknowledge explicitly not only its collusion with white supremacy but its promotion of it," Ms. Schmidt said. "Ignore the skeletons in the closet, the Klansmen in the closet, and ignore the Klan rally — that’s how white supremacy gets reproduced."

Anne M. Coughlin, a professor of law at the university, said although she found the association between the Klan and her university troubling, she was not surprised. More recently, such "alt-right" figures as Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, who organized the weekend’s rally, are UVa alums.

"The university has to do more than continue to speak in abstractions and generalities about our commitment to diversity and inclusion," Ms. Coughlin said. The marchers "came here because they feel comfortable here. They know this is a place that has tolerated monuments to racism. UVa has to acknowledge that reality and deplore it and find ways to make amends for it."

The situation, she said, reminded her of something she experienced last year on Halloween. While at a costume party hosted by the university, she spoke to one of her first-year students and the student’s partner. Both are African-American.

She asked the students if they planned to take their young daughters trick-or-treating and, when they said no, she asked the young woman if it was because they were new in town and afraid of getting lost.

"She said: ‘Professor Coughlin, we are not afraid we’ll get lost. We are afraid because there are pickup trucks driving around Charlottesville with Confederate flags. We are afraid that if we knock on the wrong door we will be attacked because we are black.’"

It is not the racism of the past that frightens Ms. Coughlin and others in Charlottesville. It is that which remains and the fear that, unchallenged, the prejudice will continue.

"See? Spencer and Kessler know that in this city they will find others who agree with them," Ms. Coughlin said. "They didn’t just happen to bring the Confederate flags to us. They knew that the flags were here, waiting to welcome them home."

Steps for the University

Frank Dukes, a lecturer in architecture, wasn’t surprised to learn about the Klan’s ties to the university, but he was disappointed. "It’s just another link in a long chain between the University of Virginia and white supremacy, which the university had a large role in helping develop and provide legitimacy for," Mr. Dukes said.

This should be an opportunity, he said, to extend the study of the President’s Commission on Slavery, which examines the historical role of slavery at universities, to the time after the Civil War. Racism didn’t end with the abolition of slavery, he said, and neither should the university’s research.

"In terms of our responsibility to the world and the community, our obligation is not only to understand what that link is but to identify those who were directly harmed and are still directly harmed through the institutional white supremacy," Mr. Dukes said.

If the university continues to try to make up for past harm, it may again attract white-supremacy groups, he said, but that should not be a deterrent. "If we’re doing the right thing and doing the right thing makes people uncomfortable, we can expect that they are going to respond," Mr. Dukes said. "We just have to persist."

Walter Heinecke, an associate professor of education, said the university’s attitude toward any ties to white supremacy should model what Frank M. (Rusty) Conner III, the university rector, wrote in his open letter to the UVa community on Monday. Mr. Conner said that if the university wished to continue to make progress in racial reconciliation, it must be honest about the issues facing society.

"There’s a call there for being honest about what’s happened in the past and owning up to it," Mr. Heinecke said. "This is a part of that honesty."

John Edwin Mason, an associate professor of history, pointed to the declining number of African-American students on campus as a reason the university should more fully understand its ties to white supremacy. In 1991 approximately 12 percent of the undergraduate students were black. By 2016 that figure was around 6 percent.

"They still feel the university is not theirs," he said. "They still feel like outsiders. That’s something I’ve heard from students consistently in the 23 years I’ve taught here. We need to answer those questions."

Mr. de Bruyn said in an email that these numbers do not accurately capture the university’s gains on diversity in recent years. A 2009 change in how the university reports data on students’ ethnic backgrounds — allowing them to choose multiple races — makes it seem as though the African-American student population immediately dropped after this change when looking at the statistics without context, he said. The number of first-year African-American students has increased by 41 percent since 2012, Mr. de Bruyn added.

Mr. Mason served on the Blue Ribbon Commission, which made recommendations to the city about what to do with Confederate memorials and how to create a more inclusive public history of Charlottesville. Ties like these, he said, are unfortunately common. And widely unknown.

"A university or city or nation that doesn’t understand its history is like an adult that doesn’t remember his or her childhood — it’s something we need to know to fully understand ourselves."

Updated (8/16/2017, 11:58 a.m.) with a response from the university about claims that its enrollment of African-American students has declined since the 1990s.