JEFFERSON AND HIS UNIVERSITY
The enslaved men carried heavy stakes and hammers as they walked the field.
Their master had always been fussy and humorless—they knew that. But these days he seemed increasingly fragile, too.
They watched him wandering about, employing various surveying tools and then scribbling in his notebook—
As ever, lost in his own strange calculus.
He was tall, their master, with long limbs, but seemed to shrink a bit in the July sun. Pushing back a clump of damp and unruly hair, he pointed to a spot, and there one of his enslaved men promptly drove a stake.
The old man grunted his approval, then kept on walking.
The field was not quite 300 yards in length and sloped dramatically downward from north to south. Its soil had once grown corn for the just-inaugurate president, James Monroe. Now it was to be cleared for something new.
Jefferson could picture it in his mind's eye—
A bustling village of sorts—an academical village—where teachers and students lived and studied together. He could see them now, striding across the lawn, earnestly debating something in Greek or Latin.
His friends might roll their eyes at such republican idealism. But he had a knack for bringing them along anyway.
To them he gave the task of getting it all figured out in Richmond, of pushing the necessary bills through the General Assembly.
For his part, he would build. Right here in this old cornfield.
Or at least his slaves would.
As the mountains looked down from a distance, one of the black men heaved his hammer up overhead and drove another spike.
It was 1817. That same year Joseph Cabell introduced a bill into the assembly that had been authored by Jefferson himself. The idea was to create a three-tiered public education system in Virginia—
The top tier being a state university.
Jefferson and Cabell were already trustees of something called the Albemarle Academy, which recently had been chartered as Central College. Neither school existed, except on paper. And in Jefferson's head.
Call it whatever you want, I imagine Jefferson thinking. This was going to be that state university.
And so he set about building it.
His ten enslaved men spent the summer clearing rocks from Monroe's old cornfield, chopping down trees, and otherwise preparing the site. Then, on October 6, a group of plumed and ruffled dignitaries all came together and with full Masonic rites laid a cornerstone. It's hidden away somewhere at the site of what would become Pavilion VII.
Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello, described the day's events. James Madison and President Monroe, were both there, he reported, with the latter delivering a few short remarks.
As for Bacon's boss: "Mr. Jefferson—poor old man!—I can see his white head just as he stood there and looked on."
Meanwhile, back in Richmond, Cabell's bill failed. There would be no public educational system in Virginia, at least not yet.
As a compromise, though, the General Assembly agreed to appropriate $15,000 for a university and appointed a distinguished commission to select a site. On August 1, 1818, said commission met at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and quickly elected Jefferson its president.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the site on which the commissioners settled just happened to be "in the neighborhood" of Jefferson's beloved Monticello. Not only that, it was a site on which the ground had already been broken.
What do you know?!
The assembly made it official on January 25, 1819. The school that had once been called Albemarle Academy and then Central College was now once and for all the University of Virginia.
So much of Jefferson's idea of the university was wrapped up not just in the fact of its existence but in how it should be designed. He was an architect at heart. Influenced by the Enlightenment, Jefferson understood the unrelenting symmetry of the Greeks and Romans to have contained a kind of spiritual logic—
One that encompassed harmony, proportion, and strength.
But he also understood the way in which design could serve important practical purposes. William and Mary, in the west end of Williamsburg, was contained within three wretched structures, the oldest of which was build back in the 1690s. Jefferson considered them to be ugly. He once wrote they were "maledictions over this land."
But he also worried that such close quarters made the school unnecessarily vulnerable to fire and contagious disease. Why not spread out a bit?
Over time his design began to take shape. The Academical Village, as he called it, would be arranged in a U-shaped configuration around that long-wide, now-terraced lawn. At its head would stand a library. On the sides, pavilions would serve as both professors' lodgings and classrooms. And they all would be connected by colonnades of single-room student dormitories.
Jefferson's design would be practical and, of course, beautiful. But it would also operate on the level of symbol. In the context of an Academical Village, it would manifest those very classical qualities in which he hoped to educate his students. It would be a model, a kind of textbook even.
The Rotunda, of course, was key to all of that. So much so that Jefferson's original sketch of it has since become the university's logo. It's remarkable, then, that such a defining feature of the school's design was not even in Jefferson's original plan. In fact, it wasn't even Jefferson's idea.
To his credit, Jefferson had from the start sought advice. In particular, he reached out to two professional architects—William Thornton and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. He had not told either man he was talking to the other because they were, as one historian has put it, "ferocious enemies."
Thornton had come up with the design for the United States Capitol and Latrobe was put in charge of building it. When design and reality clashed, so too did these men.
Anyway, Latrobe is the one who suggested a domed structure at the head of the Lawn. That was in 1817, the same year the cornerstone was laid. Over the next two years Jefferson ran with the idea, taking inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome and from Latrobe's own drawings.
So important was Latrobe that Jefferson actually wrote his name in the upper right-hand corner of this drawing before crossing it out for some reason.
Latrobe is credited on another drawing too, on which Jefferson wrote, "Latrobe's Rotunda, reduced to the proportions of the Pantheon." But he scribbled that out, as well.
Latrobe had recently crossed swords with Jefferson's good friend President Monroe over his work on the Capitol. As a result, he had resigned from the project. Perhaps Monroe wouldn't have looked kindly on Latrobe being too involved in the university.
So Jefferson, ever the astute politician, just took credit himself.
That word logo, by the way, comes from the Greek logos, which encompasses the idea that man's reasoning power can be found in the universe writ large. Everything has meaning, and that meaning derives from logos.
The University of Virginia's logo, in other words, is the Rotunda.
And the Rotunda—
which in Jefferson's day contained the library and therefore served, in a way, as the seat of reason on Grounds—
Yet again Jefferson's design had become symbol. Its harmony, proportion, and strength represented nothing less than the meaning of life or, in our perhaps less idealistic days, just really effective marketing.
A brief word here on something that we all know but something that it's important not to forget: Enslaved men and women built the University of Virginia.
As we've seen, they cleared the land on which it was built.
They formed the timber and raised it into place. They forged the nails and hammered them in. They baked clay into bricks by the tens of thousands in order to raise the Rotunda. A man named Carpenter Sam did tinwork and a man called Elijah quarried stone. William Green was a blacksmith.
Jefferson once wrote from France that a university was critical to the new republic: "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness. If any body thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of public happiness, send them here."
So this foundation for the preservation of freedom was built by slaves.
Europe was a mess, Jefferson had written. Rotten with "kings, nobles, or priests." And he was right by the way, having penned those lines just before the storming of the Bastille.
Still, it's ironic that years later when he went looking for professors, he went to Europe. Well, actually he sent Francis Walker Gilmer to Europe. Well, actually Gilmer only made it to England. There, according to his instructions, he was to find "characters of due degree of science, and of talents for instruction, and of correct habits and morals."
This was easier said than done. And after much hunting about, Gilmer managed to sign up three:
- Thomas Hewitt Key, professor of mathematics;
- Charles Bonnycastle, professor of natural philosophy; and
- Dr. Robley Dunglison, professor of medicine.
They set sail from London in October 1824 but bad weather on the Thames and storms in the Atlantic stretched a typical four- to five-week jaunt into an arduous fourteen-week journey.
At one point—and this according to Dunglison's later recollection—a nasty squall off Cape Hatteras brought Bonnycastle rushing onto deck, "almost in puris naturalibis, with his nightcap on, and his appearance was so droll as to excite the laughter of the sailors."
Their late arrival postponed the start of classes until March 7, 1825.
Other members of that original faculty included
- George Tucker, a former congressman from Virginia who taught grammar, logic, and ethics;
- George Blaettermann, a German who taught modern languages; and
- John Patten Emmet, a nephew of an executed Irish rebel. He taught chemistry.
Soon there would be professors of Latin and Greek and law.
So here's the big question: What was the point of such an education? Why was the University of Virginia such an obsession for Jefferson—his last great project? And why did the state chip in $15,000?
Well, I think one clue can be found in that quotation:
"No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness" than a university. "If any body thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of public happiness, send them" to Europe.
So Jefferson wanted
(a) to preserve freedom and happiness; and
(b) to produce something other than kings, nobles, and priests.
The roots of democracy and republicanism came from Greece and Rome. So an education in the classics—Jefferson believed—in Latin and Greek and history, would teach young men politics and virtue. It would teach them to lead the state and the new nation.
Science was critical in the operation of a working plantation, he said more than once. But other subjects ought to be taught, too, in case men had to, as he put it, "resort to professions." God forbid.
So there was medicine and law.
And there was no religion.
The idea was to create gentlemen fit to lead the world as it was in 1825. And obviously that was in the state's interest, too.
I want to emphasize the word gentlemen here, too. This was not public education as we see it today. The General Assembly had not passed such a plan. This was elite education and education for elites.
But the world would change, obviously. And so too would the university.
THE EDUCATION OF MARTHA JEFFERSON RANDOLPH
We're going to take a step back in time now, about thirty years. It's August 6, 1784, and the recent widower Thomas Jefferson, his twelve-year-old daughter Martha, and their slave James Hemings have just arrived in Paris, France. You may already know that Jefferson represented the United States there for a number of years. You also may have heard that Martha's younger sister soon joined them, along with Hemings's younger sister, Sally. Who was also Martha's half aunt. But that's another story.
It's hard to understate just how cosmopolitan Paris was compared not just to anyplace in Virginia—
But to anyplace in America. Anyplace in the world, really.
This was five years before the storming of the Bastille. It was the age of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Paris had a population of 600,000 people—
Or about fifteen times the population of Philadelphia.
And its elites looked like this.
Puffed, primmed, and pampered to the extreme.
This was no environment for a motherless young Virginia girl. Jefferson knew that.
He wanted to be near his daughter, of course. He wanted her to see the world. But he also wanted to educate her in a controlled, appropriately strict environment—
And he found just the place.
We can find it here on this 1784 map of Paris. It's near the Seine on Rue de Grenelle.
The Abbaye Royale de Panthemont.
It still stands today. This photograph was taken by the scholar Catherine Kerrison. It's a gorgeous old building …
Filled with old-world Catholic grandeur.
And also nuns. The first nuns Martha had likely ever seen.
Although I'm pretty sure they didn't have green eyes!
So the abbaye.
As the scholar Catherine Kerrison has noted, it was "one of the most fashionable schools in Paris—and by a mile the most expensive."
Which is just how Jefferson liked everything—
Fashionable and expensive.
That it was Catholic must have given him pause. Pretty much all organized religion gave him pause.
But here young Martha—then called by her nickname Patsy—would rub elbows with elite young women—
Including the daughters of French noblemen and even three bona-fide princesses, who were set apart by the blue ribbons they wore.
She would be immersed in the French language. She studied French grammar, French literature, Italian, natural science, geography, history, music, drawing, arithmetic, needlework and embroidery, and letter-writing.
This curriculum was—in many important respects—quite different from anything in America at the time.
Education for women back home, and especially in Virginia, was minimal at best. And yet it served an important purpose.
Prior to their French excursion, Jefferson had handled Martha's education. They lived in Philadelphia for two years—
And he'd hired a dancing master from Paris to tutor Martha.
He'd hired a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist to give her music lessons.
And a Swiss engraver to help her draw.
Remember: Fashionable and expensive were his watchwords.
During this time Jefferson was traveling quite a bit while Martha stayed with friends in Philadelphia. What we know about her education comes from the many letters Jefferson sent her—
Such as the one, dated November 28, 1783, where he wrote her out a schedule to follow in her studies.
This was a seven-day-a-week schedule, by the way.
Which meant no time for socializing, or hanging out with friends, or going to church.
Jefferson also created a reading list for her.
What was the purpose of such a program?
Well, Jefferson put it well in a letter dated a month later:
"The chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one …"
Coming from anyone else, this would have been a joke, a bit of irony. But from Jefferson—
I'm convinced he ran the numbers. This guy literally had no sense of humor.
He was quite worried that his daughter would be running a plantation while married to some dumb guy. He wanted to make sure she had enough education for the both of them.
At a time when divorce was nearly impossible and wives were, for all intents and purposes, owned by their husbands—
At a time when women could not handle their own bank accounts or represent themselves independently in legal matters—
This was smart planning.
But there were other reasons for educating Martha that seem to have been just as important to Jefferson.
"The acquirement which I hope you will make under the tutors I have provided for you," he wrote, "will render you more worthy of my love."
This is one of those sentiments that, awful as it might sound, also might live in the hearts of more than a few parents. It's really ugly to hear it said out loud, though!
More than that, Jefferson built a curriculum around it.
He suggested that French, for instance, was a neat trick. It sounded beautiful and so befit a daughter and a lady.
And speaking of what befit a lady: "Take care you never spell a word wrong," he wrote, because "it produces great praise to a lady to spell well."
I don't think I'm over-reading here to say that the point is not that you communicate clearly via proper spelling. What's important is that you win praise.
What we have here, then, is a complicated set of motivations behind educating women.
They should draw well, spell well, speak French well, play music well—both because these were enjoyable pursuits and because it made them more attractive to men.
They also should dance because, for the elite in Virginia, dances were how men and women met. A woman who did not dance may as well resign herself to spinsterhood.
Finally, at least for Martha, an education was a kind of insurance policy against future blockheads.
Perhaps this last one is why Jefferson chose a school like Abbaye Royale de Panthemont. It provided much more than the traditional American curriculum.
You'll recall, for instance, that in Paris Martha studied natural science—from this book, as it happens. And geography, history, and math.
The scholar Catherine Kerrison notes that many early histories "have dismissed this curriculum as providing not much more than 'vernis d'urbanité,' or the veneer of polished manners."
She says these historians ignore the seriousness with which both the nuns and their students took female education. In France, at least, such an education signified elite status and even gave women some ability to exert political influence.
One subject in particular was significant in the way it helped form female identity.
That subject, Kerrison says, was letter writing.
Students like Martha read collections of letters—from daughters to their mothers, sisters to their siblings, mothers to their daughters.
They learned the importance of those various roles and how to enact them out—in the world and in writing.
As we have seen, the school also exposed Martha to the Catholic Church.
Concerned that his daughter might be subject to an unwanted conversion, Jefferson kept a close eye on the school and its nuns. He wrote often and even periodically stopped by. There were a number of English girls at the school, and some have suggested that the nuns—understanding well the business of tuition-based education—kept religion away from the Protestants.
And yet Martha seems to have been susceptible to the temptations of Catholic ritual.
There were no church buildings in Charlottesville at this time. The first one wasn't built until 1825. So imagine twelve-year-old Martha attending a solemn ceremony in which a young nun received the habit and made her lifetime vows.
She was reduced to tears.
Family legend has it that Martha wrote her father that she intended to convert to Catholicism and he promptly showed up at the school and removed his daughters from the nuns' charges.
It's unclear whether that actually happened. But many decades later, Martha wrote one of her daughters, who was then eighteen:
"At your age, I believed most religiously that it was the only road to heaven, and looked forward with fear and terror to the possibility of never again having it in my power"—because of her imminent return home—"to profess my self a member of that church which I believed the true, and original."
This seems an apt and, I think, rather sad metaphor for Martha Jefferson's entire educational experience.
Her father put her in a convent school but forbade her from the religion.
He made sure she learned geography, history, and science. But at the same time—
He understood that she would return to a world where such knowledge was largely useless for a woman.
Jefferson himself believed that women existed largely just to please men and make men's lives easier. The University of Virginia, which, as you know, so closely identifies with its founder, long reflected these particular views of his—
Not admitting women under equal terms as men until 1970. And only then under the threat of a lawsuit.
Jefferson's daughter, however, had other ideas about her education. Martha became infatuated with learning. Using her father's library, she taught herself Greek and Latin and thoroughly explored the classics.
And, in the years to come, she set about educating her daughters and granddaughters. They became, like their mother, the best educated women in America—
Even as the world they lived in had no idea what to do with such learning.
Rejected it, in fact.
Jefferson himself wrote, not long after the family's return from Paris: "I know no such useless bauble in a house as a girl of mere city education."
Education for men served to improve their citizenship and their contributions to the state, and to preserve their rank.
Education for women served … well, it served only men.
And that was the tragedy of Martha Jefferson Randolph. When she educated her granddaughter Ellen better than most men, she rendered the girl unfit for an ordinary destiny. That's how Ellen herself put it.
Such an education raised her expectations for an extraordinary life—
But such a life simply wasn't possible for a woman then.
One more point—and I don't want to make too much of it.
But you remember James Hemings, the enslaved man who traveled to Paris with Jefferson and Martha? He was Sally Hemings's older brother and Martha's half-uncle.
While in Paris he trained as a French chef de cuisine and worked for Jefferson thereafter—
Cooking, as you might imagine, only the most fashionable and most expensive food.
Then, in 1793, he asked for his freedom—
And remarkably Jefferson granted it. Hemings went on to cook in a roadside tavern, of all places, and when President Jefferson offered him a job at the White House he refused.
A few months later—this was in 1801—James Hemings killed himself.
It's hard not to wonder whether he, like his half niece, was educated to be something great—
Only to find that the reality of life got in the way.
On September 8, 1774, an ad appeared in the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg. If you squint your eyes, you might see that much of page 3 is taken up with such ads—
Strayed, strayed, run away, strayed.
This particular ad was placed by Lewis Burwell, scion to one of the most powerful families in Virginia. It reads:
Run away from the Subscriber, about two Months ago, a likely Mulatto Lad named ISAAC BEE, formerly the Property of the late President Blair, and is well known about Williamsburg, where I am informed he has been several Times since his Elopement. He is between eighteen and nineteen Years of Age, low of Stature, and thinks he has a Right to his Freedom, because his Father was a Freeman, and I suppose will endeavor to pass for one. He can read, but I do not know that he can write; however, he may easily get some One to forge a Pass for him. I cannot undertake to describe his Apparel, as he has a Variety, and it is probable he may have changed them. Whoever apprehends the said Slave and delivers him to me, or to Mrs. Burwell, in Williamsburg, shall have 40s. All Masters of Vessels are forewarned from carrying him out of the Country.
This ad introduces us to an enslaved man named Isaac Bee.
I want to say we know nothing about Bee, but let's change that to very little.
(1) He's mulatto. In fact, he's so light skinned he could pass as white.
(2) His father was free—although it's unclear if that means he was white.
(3) He was short.
(4) 18 to 19 years old
(5) And owned first by the powerful politician John Blair, who died in 1771, and then by the not quite as powerful Lewis Burwell.
(6) He was able to read but probably not write …
Thinks he has a right to his own freedom. This really seems to stick in Burwell's craw. How impudent of Bee to think he deserved to be free?
Anyway. So that's not much to know about a person, and yet when historians are looking at the lives of enslaved men and women in Virginia—
It's actually quite a lot. For every James Hemings, there are thousands of men, women, and children for whom we are lucky to have a name and maybe a birth date. That's it.
But precisely because of Isaac Bee's impudence, for him we have much more than that. And what I want to call our attention to in particular is the fact that he could read.
It means that he was educated.
As it happens Isaac Bee's name appeared in the historical record ten years earlier. As a boy of eight or nine he attended something called the Bray School in Williamsburg. It was a school for enslaved children located, at least for a time, in the house of a man named Dudley Digges.
The house still stands, by the way, on Prince George Street. The College of William and Mary's department of military science is housed there.
The Bray School was funded by the Associates of Dr. Bray. This was a philanthropic group founded in 1724 by the English clergyman Thomas Bray. Their mission was to educate enslaved African Americans in the British North American colonies.
They did this at first by sending itinerant missionaries around, supplying them with books, and putting them in contact with local slaveholders.
This had only limited success. And it was actually Benjamin Franklin who suggested they open up a school. Their first was in Philadelphia. When that went well, Franklin arranged for Bray schools to be opened in New York; Newport, Rhode Island; and Williamsburg. Another one eventually opened in Fredericksburg.
It says something about the geography of slavery in 1757 that half of these were in what we call now the North.
Anyway, the Bray school in Williamsburg operated from 1760 to 1774.
At first the slaveholders used the school as a kind of babysitting service. Here, take these kids while their mothers are working in the house or the fields.
So the school instituted some rules.
Each students needed to attend for three years.
They needed to be taught the doctrine of the Church of England—
As well as how to be "faithful & obedient."
So back to Isaac Bee.
You'll recall that in his advertisement, Lewis Burwell noted this about Bee:
"He can read, but I do not know that he can write."
Until very recently—by which I mean late last year—it was assumed by pretty much everyone that the Bray schools taught slaves to read and write. That's part of our modern conception of what an education is, after all.
Then an English professor at William and Mary looked more closely at the evidence, including this ad. If they taught writing at the school, he asked, then why did Burwell suspect that Bee could not write?
The professor looked at the evidence again, reached out to various scholars, and walked away with a consensus opinion: the school did not teach writing.
Why does this matter? I mean, beyond the fact that we still need to adjust the wording of a few entries in Encyclopedia Virginia?
It matters because it gets to the heart of why slaveholders were interested in educating slaves in the first place.
I mean, what was the point exactly?
Well, the point was this:
To teach them to be better slaves.
Which is to say, to teach them religion—
To give them the ability to read the Bible.
And to instruct them in how to be "faithful & obedient."
It does not mean teaching them to write, however.
Back once again to Burwell's ad:
"He can read, but I do not know that he can write; however, he may easily get some One to forge a Pass for him."
Slaves who could write were dangerous because they could more easily maneuver in the white world. As it was, teaching them to read was a calculated risk. The advantages of religion—this was the thinking for a time, at least—outweighed the dis-advantages of being to read a newspaper.
Anyway, education here, as at the University of Virginia, as at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, was in service to the status quo. It was not your ticket out, as they say. To the contrary, it was a way of keeping you in.
And that could be good or bad, depending on your circumstances.
As for Isaac Bee—who thought he had a right to his own freedom—
He wanted something better.
He didn't get it, though. He was recaptured and presumably remained a slave the rest of his life.
ELIZABETH VAN LEW AND MARY JANE
That's a dark way to end things, so I want to offer up an example—two actually—where education served to subvert the status quo.
We begin with a woman named Elizabeth Van Lew. She was born in Richmond in 1818. Her father, John Van Lew, was a merchant originally from Long Island, New York. Her mother, Eliza Baker, hailed from Philadelphia. The two were married in Richmond at Saint John's Church—
Of Patrick Henry fame.
John's hardware store did well supplying the construction project at the University of Virginia and he earned enough to purchase this giant mansion on East Gracie Street, in the Church Hill neighborhood, just across the street from the church.
This is where Elizabeth grew up.
Today it's an elementary school.
Which, considering this morning's theme, seems perfectly appropriate.
Through wealth, proper conduct, and an investment in slaves, the Van Lews had insinuated themselves into Richmond society. This was not such an easy thing to do in the South, especially if you were a northerner.
So it's interesting that lurking not too far in the past were some—how shall we say—impolitic relatives.
Or at least there was one: Van Lew's maternal grandfather, Hilary Baker.
He was an accomplished man. The mayor of Philadelphia. A delegate to Pennsylvania's constitutional convention.
But he also was one of the first members of the pioneering Pennsylvania Abolition Society, whose president was Benjamin Franklin.
So it seems really significant that young Elizabeth Van Lew was educated not in Richmond but instead sent to bustling Philadelphia. (It was ten times the size of Richmond.)
By this time—which is to say, the early 1830s—the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society had been founded. This was the group that accepted Henry Box Brown's package in 1849. Hilary Baker's Abolition Society still existed, but this new group was more radical.
In fact, Philadelphia was what one scholar called "a hothouse for moral reform societies." It would have been shocking had Van Lew not been exposed to antislavery activity. Rumor has it that even one of her governesses was an abolitionist.
Few specific details of her education survive except that Van Lew was considered an excellent student.
She described her mother, meanwhile, as an "intellectual" who read ceaselessly. And apparently she passed that love on to her daughter, whose library at the time of her death was extensive.
Elizabeth Van Lew, in other words, was steeped in learning. But it wasn't the kind meant to preserve one's rank or the status quo.
Quite the opposite, it seems.
All this while, though, the Van Lews owned slaves. When John Van Lew died, in 1843, he left a will that stipulated those slaves not be freed.
As it happens, that's exactly what Elizabeth and her mother seemed inclined to do. Over the next nearly twenty years, tiptoeing around the will and state law, they did everything but.
They hired their enslaved men and women out to decent jobs. Found them decent places to live.
And in one particular case, they provided an education.
That slave's name was Mary Jane. She was born around 1841. And in 1846 she was baptized at nearby Saint John's Church.
While it was not unheard-of for a slave to be baptized in a church, it was extremely rare for this to happen in a white church. And especially a church as, for lack of a better word, hoity-toity as Saint John's.
Already we can see the Van Lews, absent perhaps the more conventional father, bucking the system.
Then, a few years after the baptism, the Van Lews sent Mary Jane north to be educated—
Either to Philadelphia or to Princeton, New Jersey.
It was extraordinary that the Van Lews had baptized Mary Jane at Saint John's Church. It was extraordinary that they had sent her north to be educated. What made that last act even more unusual is that Virginia law specifically prohibited any African American who left the state to be educated from returning.
There was a reason for this, of course. The state wanted to control what people learned, how they learned. It was a post–Bray school environment. Schools for slaves were outlawed. And in 1831, after the Nat Turner revolt, the General Assembly made it a criminal offense for any person to receive a salary for teaching enslaved people. It also prohibited assembling classes of free blacks for the purpose of teaching them.
I mentioned earlier that teaching slaves was seen as a calculated risk. The advantages of religion were seen to outweigh the disadvantages of, saying, being able to read a newspaper.
That was no longer the case.
So this was a big deal, sending Mary Jane to be educated. And it was a big deal that she returned to Virginia and put that education to use.
How did she put it to use?
First she served as a missionary to Liberia, as part of the colonization movement. This was founded upon the idea that the best way to rid the United States of slavery would be to gradually emancipate the slaves and then send them back to Africa.
So Mary Jane went to Africa but didn't much to take to it. Why should she have? It was not her home or her culture.
So she returned and then the Civil War started.
And here I'm going to be a little bit cruel.
Rather than tell you the whole story I'm going to tease you.
Both Mary Jane and Elizabeth became spies, using their wits in service of the Union. Mary Jane worked as a servant in the Confederate White House, Elizabeth as a purveyor of information and even as a jail-break artist.
You can read more in our entries on them, which I've linked to at our class page.
We started with the question: What was the purpose of an education?
There's no one answer to that, obviously. It was to defend the status quo and to preserve one's rank. But it also was to subvert the status quo and upset the system.
Either way, I hope it provides a useful lens for looking at these lives and thinking about these stories.