Sept. 15, 2023
Project Gabriel commission presents recommendations of options for VCU to memorialize enslaved people who labored on MCV grounds and property
The commission established by VCU’s Office of the President also made recommendations of options for VCU to provide tangible benefits to individuals and communities with historic connection to slavery.
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Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice on Friday presented its final recommendations to the Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors to identify and memorialize the enslaved individuals who labored on Medical College of Virginia grounds and property, and to provide scholarships and community-based economic development programs for individuals and communities with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery.
The recommendations of Project Gabriel, an independent commission of civic and scholarly leaders, represent a menu of options to be vetted and considered that would fulfill the directives of Virginia’s Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program (Va. Code § 23.1-615.1), which was passed in 2021 and directs Virginia’s five oldest colleges and universities, including VCU, to research their historic involvement with slavery, to identify enslaved people who were forced to perform labor for those institutions and to provide a tangible benefit for individuals or communities with connections to enslaved labor to break cycles of poverty.
On Friday, the Board of Visitors received the commission’s report and directed VCU’s administration to review and consider the recommendations and strategies in light of potential legislative changes, resource availability, operational plans and guidance from legal counsel.
“The story of Project Gabriel is not just about historical reckoning,” the commission wrote in its report. “It is about weaving together the uncommon pieces of our past and present, embracing our identity as an institution with 180 years of both positive and negative history, acknowledging where there is the need for reconciliation and committing to doing better. These recommendations signify VCU’s commitment to reconciliation, community engagement and the betterment of the university as an institution and a national model.”
Project Gabriel was established by VCU’s Office of the President in spring 2023 to report, reconcile and heal the wounds caused by VCU’s historic ties to the institution of slavery. It is named after Gabriel, an enslaved Richmond-area man who organized a rebellion in 1800 intended to end slavery in Virginia.
“We initiated Project Gabriel as a community conversation around how VCU can thoughtfully take meaningful actions to address the role of enslavement of human beings and racism in the institution’s past, and improve the future,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “This was an important first step. Now the next phase of the work begins. I’m grateful to Board of Visitors member Dr. Clifton Peay and VCU Health’s Chief of Health Impact Sheryl Garland for leading Project Gabriel, and to all those who participated in enriching conversations and formed these recommendations to guide VCU’s next steps.”
VCU commissioned a national expert to lead efforts to more fully understand the Medical College of Virginia’s connections to the institution of slavery. The report, “Slavery and the Medical College of Virginia,” found that MCV was built and operated using the labor of enslaved people. It was presented to VCU’s Board of Visitors in December 2022. At this time, VCU is only aware of an approximate number of enslaved people who labored on MCV property, and it has not yet been able to identify any of them by full name.
Project Gabriel was formed to evaluate the report and its findings, and determine a path forward. It is led by co-chairs Garland, chief of health impact for the VCU Health System and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity, and Peay, an ophthalmologist and the founding medical director of The American Eye Center. The commission includes a diverse group of individuals, including business and academic leaders, scholars, students, current and past board members, and community members.
“Our recommendations reflect a commitment to community, equity and justice,” Peay said, adding that the goal is to “acknowledge our history and create tangible, lasting change.”
Throughout this year, the commission has held public forums in Richmond and at VCU, gathering insight and feedback from hundreds of students, faculty, staff and Richmond community members. The commission also established four work groups of nearly 50 VCU representatives and community members to collate the information and develop operational plans to support implementation of the recommendations.
Identification and memorialization
Once VCU has determined whether the names and backgrounds of the enslaved people who labored on MCV grounds and property can be identified, Project Gabriel recommended that VCU explore the restoration of the First African Baptist Church — also known as Randolph Minor Hall on the MCV Campus — to serve as a memorialization site for these individuals and others who have a demonstrated connection to slavery or those who are still experiencing the legacy of slavery.
First African Baptist Church originated at 14th and Broad streets in the mid-1800s. The building was sold to MCV in 1953, and its congregation moved to a location in Richmond’s North Side.
The commission recommended that some of the options that could be considered by VCU include renovation of the building to feature spaces that focus on memorialization, telling the history of MCV and its nexus to the institution of slavery, and archival research for medical issues that concern individuals who are still experiencing the legacy of slavery. The commission also recommended exploration of the potential conveyance of the building to Virginia Union University, thereby establishing a national model for racial reconciliation. The commission further recommended that VCU’s future efforts to memorialize enslaved individuals who labored on MCV grounds and property be aligned to work in coordination with the Family Research Council of the East Marshall Street Well Project, which has put forth recommendations to support appropriate research, memorialization and interment of 19th-century individuals whose discarded remains were discovered in 1994 on the MCV Campus.
Project Gabriel recommended that VCU establish, subject to applicable law, a minimum of five to eight scholarships in line with the requirements of Virginia’s Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program, which was approved by the General Assembly for “the purpose of reckoning with the history of the Commonwealth, addressing the long legacy of slavery in the Commonwealth and acknowledging that the foundational success of several public institutions of higher education was based on the labor of enslaved individuals.”
The commission further recommended that VCU consider the establishment of “Gabriel Scholars” that will provide scholarships for no less than the 27 years that the institution used enslaved labor, in accordance with the statutory requirements of the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program.
It also recommended that VCU establish specific scholarships within its schools of health sciences for individuals with a historic connection to slavery, as well as students who are committed to serving in communities with a historic connection to slavery.
Additionally, the commission recommended that VCU augment the scholarships with robust advising and wrap-around services to ensure the success of participants during their time at VCU and after graduation.
It further recommended that VCU establish student success programs for multidisciplinary subjects, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, math and health; and that VCU explore ways to build on its partnership with Richmond Public Schools to support Richmond students.
Community-based economic development programs for individuals and communities
Project Gabriel recommended that VCU explore opportunities for youth that are focused on college and career readiness, including summer internships for high school juniors and rising seniors; career support for VCU students, including after graduation; expanded programs for college-bound students to introduce them to science, technology, engineering, math and health careers; and programs focused on entrepreneurship and how to start a business.
The commission recommended that VCU consider the creation and design of programs that increase academic success for students attending nonaccredited schools in the greater Richmond area, with a focus on Richmond Public Schools. These programs could potentially provide and expand mentorship opportunities for K-12 students; provide education and pathways focused on science, technology, engineering, math and health careers; increase outreach, awareness and communications about programs and events at VCU, including summer enrichment programs; and provide information to students and parents/guardians on how to apply for college.
The commission also recommended that VCU explore the development of inclusive and accessible skill-building educational modules for community members that can be supported by various units across VCU and empower the community. This includes launching a summer boot camp for skill building, providing “microcredentials” that help meet regional workforce and entrepreneurship needs; and the establishment of a “VCU Mobile” approach that utilizes partnerships with community organizations to address access barriers faced by community members.
It also recommended that VCU take steps to enhance the small-business development community ecosystem. Under this recommendation, VCU would examine its procurement policies to assist vendors in successfully navigating the process; engage with community partners that are focused on small-business development; identify opportunities throughout VCU to support small businesses; and identify and address known “barriers” encountered by small-business owners.
Additionally, the commission recommended that VCU build a “connector” model that enhances partnerships with community organizations and community colleges to support workforce development and capacity needs of community residents and businesses; and to work with community partners to establish “hub” models that address community-identified needs, such as health and wellness.
It also recommended that VCU work to address significant challenges facing Richmond through vertically integrated projects and team-based approaches that prioritize community input and measure outcomes. These include crime and gun violence, food deserts, mental health and digital divides.
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