A photo of the MCV campus at night with building lights

Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice will help VCU reconcile the past with the present

VCU’s journey of reflection and transformation continues with commission that will strive to continue to acknowledge the institution’s past, engage continuously with the community and make meaningful changes.

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Each meeting of Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice starts with a moment of silence to recognize enslaved people whose humanity was stripped away from them in the 1800s.

“Whatever dreams and aspirations they had were never fulfilled because of their enslavement,” said commission co-chair ophthalmologist Clifton Peay, M.D., VCU board member and founding medical director of The American Eye Center.

VCU’s monumental journey of reflection and transformation leading up to the special commission started more than a decade ago with the East Marshall Street Well project, which works to address critical issues and concerns regarding the remains of human beings, believed to be largely of African descent, that were discovered in a well near the MCV Campus – with a focus on emphasizing the dignity and respect that should be accorded to these human remains. 

Project Gabriel continues VCU’s path to reconcile the university’s past with its present to build a better and brighter future.

“VCU is committed to acknowledging and thoughtfully examining the role of enslavement and racism in the institution’s past, as we have done with the East Marshall Street Well Project and the VCU Committee on Commemoration and Memorials,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “Project Gabriel is an opportunity to continue to acknowledge the institution’s past, engage continuously with our community in a dialogue regarding actionable recommendations, and make meaningful changes that reflect the inclusive public university and health system that we are today.”  

The special commission appointed by Rao comprises a diverse group of individuals that include business and academic leaders, scholars, current and past board members, students and community members as well as outside experts who have familiarity with the particular time period being researched.

“The commitment from each commission member to reconciliation and repair to these issues that haunt VCU by way of MCV’s past is phenomenal,” Peay said. “We all want to play a role with redemption in terms of what we can do to redeem, repair and fulfill what we are required to do.”

The special commission is co-chaired by Peay and Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact at VCU Health System and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity.

“I am excited about the opportunity to engage commission members and community groups to collectively provide a voice for first: the untold number of enslaved individuals who were a critical, but silent part of VCU/MCV’s history, as well as second: those who experienced unjust treatment which often supported research efforts that enhanced the prominence of this institution,” Garland said. “To honor these individuals and develop recommendations to commemorate their contributions brings me joy.”

Commission members are as follows:

  • Ed Ayers, Ph.D., Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond.
  • Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., associate dean for equity and community partnerships in the College of Humanities and Sciences, professor of psychology, and founding director of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention at VCU.
  • Rhonda Keyes Pleasants, manager at Henry W. Dabney Funeral Home Inc. and associate professor at VCU and chair of the Family Representative Council of the East Marshall Street Well Project.
  • Leonard Edloe, PharmD, retired CEO and pharmacist of Edloe’s Professional Pharmacies and pastor of New Hope Fellowship.
  • Nakeina Douglas-Glenn, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Research Institute for Social Equity, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs. 
  • Yvonne Brandon, Ed.D., managing director of The Aria Group and former Richmond Public Schools Superintendent.
  • Kevin Harris, Ph.D., senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at VCU School of Medicine.
  • William “Bill” Martin, director of the Valentine.
  • Tobi Ojo, VCU undergraduate student.
  • Maya Johnson, VCU School of Medicine student.
  • Ad hoc: Lauranett Lee, Ph.D., public historian and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Richmond.

Jonsette Calloway, communications manager in the office of the vice president for administration, and Matthew Conrad, vice president for external and government relations, are serving as staff members for the commission.

The commission meets on a bi-weekly basis and will hold online and in-person forums to hear from the broader community. The first in-person meeting will be held March 21 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School located at 1000 Mosby Street in Richmond. The commission has a goal to deliver recommendations to the VCU Board of Visitors by the end of the 2023 academic year.

“These public forums engage members of the community whom we feel are major stakeholders,” Peay said. “The public is pivotal in the kind of direction and engagement the commission has.

We are looking forward to hearing from the community.”

“My hope is the commission will engage in dialogues that provide valuable guidance regarding actions that should be taken to support people of color who live in communities that have been negatively impacted by VCU/MCV’s historical policies and practices,” Garland said. “Listening is a critical step to support the healing process.”

For more about Project Gabriel, visit projectgabriel.vcu.edu/.