The Virginia state legislature has passed a bill calling for five public colleges and universities in the state to offer college scholarships to the descendants of enslaved workers.

Five state universities built before 1865 — Longwood University, the University of Virginia (UVA), Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute, and the College of William & Mary — are being required to provide the descendants of enslaved workers full four-year scholarships along with their choice of attending any of these five schools.

Sponsored by delegate David Reid, House Bill (HB) 1980 introduced the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship, which passed the House by a 61-39 majority. 

These five educational institutions were built heavily utilizing the labor of enslaved workers. They have in one way or another encouraged, enabled, and profited from slavery. Reid argued that HB 1980 recognizes and honors the enslaved people who labored on these campuses and intends to provide educational support to their descendants.

Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship

According to the terms of the bill, colleges will use their endowments to fund these scholarships. 

The universities will work with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to discover how many enslaved people worked on their campuses, which will determine the number of scholarships to be provided. The numbers will vary with each institute. UVA, for example, has uncovered between 4,000 and 5,000 enslaved workers who labored on its campus.

To locate the descendants of those who were enslaved, SCHEV will “make eligible individuals or specific communities with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery.” The University of Virginia has already begun identifying the living descendants of these enslaved people through their website, DescendantsUVA.org

Universities Studying Slavery

HB 1980 was born of the need to acknowledge the efforts of Black people who have built and maintained the nation’s universities.

Over the last few years, many colleges have come forward to acknowledge and attempt to atone for their history of slavery by funding descendants of the enslaved who were forced to work for the institutions.

In 2009, the College of William & Mary in Virginia established The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, named after Lemon, an enslaved man at the campus. The project offers full-blown courses and symposia detailing the college’s relationship with slavery.

Ten years later, a group of more than 50 universities joined a University of Virginia-led collaboration, Universities Studying Slavery, to explore their ties to slavery and share research and strategies. These universities, which included Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia have undertaken measures to acknowledge the role that slavery played in their history.