An Unfolding History
The University of Richmond: An Unfolding History, a virtual exhibit, will be developed over time, tracing the institution’s history from its early formation by Virginia Baptists in the 1830s through its now nearly 200 years of dedication to educational excellence.
This exhibit builds on work in recent years by students, faculty, staff, and independent researchers, as well as institutionally supported initiatives to deepen and expand understanding of our history. It will consider familiar figures and stories, along with new research illuminating individuals and topics.
This initial phase of An Unfolding History covers the period 1830 to the chartering of Richmond College in 1840, considering: the formation, growth, and Baptist mission of the institution that would become the University of Richmond; early institutional leaders and their contributions; and the role of the institution and its leaders in enslavement and the institution’s ties to First African Baptist Church.
Future phases of the exhibit will include:
- the effects of the Civil War on Richmond College and the post-war restructuring that resulted;
- the college’s late-19th-century expansion on its former campus between Grace and Broad Streets;
- the acquisition and development of the current campus in the early 20th century, and the enslavement history on the land prior to the institution’s relocation;
- the formation and evolution of the University, including the admission of women and creation of Westhampton College; navigation of two world wars and other national economic shifts; gradual admission of African American students and growth of the student body; development of the Law School and establishment of the Robins School of Business, School of Professional and Continuing Studies, School of Arts and Sciences, and Jepson School of Leadership Studies and other expansions of the faculty and curriculum; progress of the University’s Division I Athletics programs; the role of philanthropy in advancing the institution; and the University’s commitment to access and affordability, including adoption of policies of need-blind admission and meeting full need; and
- the roles of additional institutional leaders and other significant figures in the University’s history and progress.
The exhibit will draw on existing accounts and additional perspectives gained from further research into University archives and other records, resources, and remembrances. We are grateful to all who have contributed to developing the first phase of An Unfolding History and look forward to continued exploration of the story of the University, its important milestones and distinctive mission in American higher education, and the generations of Spiders who have shaped the institution we know today.
An overview of the institution’s development with examinations of key topics and milestones drawn from previously known and recently located information.
Phase One will cover the era of 1830-1840.
Biographical summaries of figures who played a notable institutional role or represent important facets of the institution’s history. Phase One focuses specifically on three figures and former namesakes of University buildings, reflecting the fuller understanding resulting from recent research: Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Robert Ryland, and James Thomas, Jr.
Details on the involvement of the institution and its leaders in enslavement; the recovered names and stories of enslaved persons who labored at the institution or were held by its leaders; and the connections between the institution’s history and that of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church.
The Institution Through Time
Phase One of The Institution Through Time explores the formation and early years of the institution that became Richmond College and later the University of Richmond. It addresses:
- the institution’s Baptist origins, including the role of the Virginia Baptist General Association, formation of the Virginia Baptist Education Society, and creation and mission of two home-based education centers in 1830;
- the 1832 opening of Virginia Baptist Seminary, the foundation of the University of Richmond; and
- the transition to Richmond College in 1840.
Phase One of An Unfolding History covers the lives and influence of 19th-century leaders Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Robert Ryland, and James Thomas, Jr., reflecting recent research that provides a fuller understanding of their roles at the institution and in the Baptist church, their professional roles and accomplishments, and their roles in enslavement.
In spring 2022, when institutional Naming Principles were formally adopted to guide decisions about namings at the University, Jeter Hall, Thomas Hall, and Ryland Hall were renamed, consistent with Principle 6, which states: “No building, program, professorship, or other entity at the University should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement of others or openly advocated for the enslavement of people.”
The consideration of Jeter, Ryland, and Thomas in this exhibit, adheres to the commitment of Principle 9, which provides that when a name is removed: “an explanation of the original name, the rationale for the original naming, and the reasons for its removal should be preserved and accessible. In all cases, this historical account should be full and objective, accurately communicating the namesake’s life and principal legacy, including contributions to the University.” Institutional figures addressed in future phases of the exhibit will include former namesakes Bennet Puryear, Sarah Brunet, Thomas C. Williams, Sr., and Douglas Southall Freeman.
Like the rest of An Unfolding History, the Institutional Figures section will expand as the site extends to later eras of our history. Other institutional leaders, as well as faculty, students, staff, and other individuals who have strengthened the institution, helped it achieve important milestones, or represent key parts of its history will be added in future phases.
In the institution’s first decades, operations relied heavily on the forced labor of enslaved persons leased by the institution. Enslaved persons were a constant presence at the Dunlora education center that laid the groundwork for the institution’s 1832 formation, and on the two early campuses: Spring Farm and the location at what is now Broad and Grace Streets. Using the “slave hire” system, the institution leased individuals from their enslavers, including Robert Ryland. Enslavement also contributed to the wealth of many of the institution’s leaders and donors.
This section includes the findings of recent research about the involvement of the institution and its leaders in enslavement; the role of enslaved labor at the institution; the stories and names of individual enslaved persons recovered through the research; and the institution’s ties to First African Baptist Church and its large congregation of enslaved and free Black members.