March 22, 2023
VCU’s Project Gabriel holds its first community forum
Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice aims to report, reconcile and heal the wounds caused by VCU’s historic ties to the institution of slavery.
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An estimated 100 students, employees and community members gathered at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Tuesday for the first community forum of the Virginia Commonwealth University Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice.
Project Gabriel was established by VCU’s Office of the President this spring to report, reconcile and heal the wounds caused by VCU’s historic ties to the institution of slavery. This effort was named after Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved Richmond man who organized a rebellion in 1800 intended to end slavery in Virginia.
“Through Project Gabriel, our goal is to engage, to have dialogue about actionable recommendations and [to make] meaningful changes that will reflect the inclusive communities that we are today, particularly when I talk about the university and I talk about the health system,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., at Monday’s community forum. “So getting input from as many of our communities as possible — and that begins with all of you who are here tonight — is a really important part of this work.”
The project was launched following a 2021 law (House Bill 1980) that directed 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.
VCU commissioned a national expert to lead efforts to more fully understand the Medical College of Virginia’s connections to the institution of slavery. Presented to the Board of Visitors in December, the report, Slavery and the Medical College of Virginia, found that MCV was built and operated using the labor of enslaved people. Project Gabriel was formed to evaluate the report and its findings and determine a path forward.
“[What the report found] after an incredible amount of research is something that should not surprise us, but the horror of which still shocks us even to this day, which getting really to the heart of the matter: The Medical College of Virginia between the mid-1840s and the 1860s owned between five and 10 individuals in each of those years. Those individuals labored on our campus in various respects and, of course were never compensated,” said Matt Conrad, VCU vice president for government and external relations, who is serving on the Project Gabriel staff. “They were certainly never memorialized or properly remembered. You can do so through this process.”
Project Gabriel’s commission is co-chaired by Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact for VCU Health System and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity, and Clifton L. Peay, Ph.D., a member of the VCU Board of Visitors, ophthalmologist and the founding medical director of the American Eye Center. Its members include a diverse group of individuals, including business and academic leaders, scholars, students, current and past board members and community members.
Inspired by Gabriel’s boldness, courage and conviction, the commission is seeking to be deliberate in its efforts to guide VCU on a path toward reckoning with its past, engaging with its present and strengthening all communities for the future.
Project Gabriel launched a series of community forums both within and outside VCU to gather input and feedback as it collaboratively determines next steps.
“We believe that by putting our minds and our hearts and our thoughts together, we can come up with better ideas to respond to these facts,” Conrad said.
At Monday’s community forum, Project Gabriel facilitated a feedback-and-listening session for its work and House Bill 1980. Roundtable discussions were held around themes of memorialization, scholarships, and community and individual economic programs.
“I’m looking for this commission to do what’s right and to be guided by the good feedback that we receive from all of our communities,” Rao said.
Among the ideas shared by community members were the creation of programs focused on home ownership, debt relief, financial education and support, afterschool programs, wealth building and health care. For commemoration and memorialization, community members suggested ideas including events, plaques, and naming VCU departments or schools in honor of the enslaved people.
Robert Bolling, who grew up and works in the East End of Richmond, took part in the community forum.
“I was really interested in the university taking on a topic that is difficult and is impactful for the community that I have lived experience in. That drove me to come here,” Bolling said. “I knew a little bit about Gabriel Prosser, so I started reading about him. His courage to create a movement that threatened his life and eventually took his life is a powerful story to me. And I think it’s important for our community to understand these stories and for us to do something tangible about it. This is a way to do that.”
A second community forum will be held at VCU on Monday, March 27, at James Branch Cabell Library. Registration for the second forum is currently closed due to capacity limits. A third community forum will be held virtually, and details will be announced soon.
More information about Project Gabriel can be found at projectgabriel.vcu.edu/.
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