People sitting at circular tables in a large room. There is a screen that says \"PROJECT Gabriel\" behind them.
Members of the VCU and Richmond communities gathered in Cabell Library on March 27 for the second community forum for Project Gabriel. (Photo by Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Community provides valuable feedback, ideas to VCU’s Project Gabriel

Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice has been seeking public feedback on memorialization, scholarships, and community and individual economic programs.

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At three public forums held in recent weeks, hundreds of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University community members have provided valuable feedback and insight to Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice.

The project 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. It is working to memorialize all enslaved individuals who labored on MCV grounds and property, and to provide tangible benefits such as a college scholarship or community-based economic development program for individuals or communities with a demonstrated historic connection to slavery.

“Through Project Gabriel, we want dialogue about where we go — with actionable recommendations and meaningful changes that reflect the inclusive public university and health system that we are today,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., on Tuesday at the third community forum. “Engaging with the communities is a vital part of this work — as many people as possible. This doesn’t end here. How do we go forward? We need your help. The input and guidance of the members of this commission and the public are imperative to ensure that our actions are reflective and transformative.”

The first public forum drew a crowd of roughly 100 students, employees and community members at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on March 21. At the second, held March 27, community members gathered at James Branch Cabell Library at VCU. And on Tuesday, 236 people were registered to attend a virtual listening session.

Four people sitting at a table. One of the woman is writing on a giant pad of paper.
At each forum, participants provided feedback and ideas about memorialization, scholarships, and community and individual economic programs. (Photo by Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

At each public forum, attendees provided feedback in small group discussions around themes of memorialization, scholarships, and community and individual economic programs.

“The information received to date has been insightful and provided important perspectives from individuals and communities we hope will benefit from the recommendations that will be developed,” said Project Gabriel Co-chair Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact for the VCU Health System and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity. “We have also learned how critical it is to listen to the voices of the diverse constituencies across the RVA community. The wisdom and guidance shared thus far will be invaluable to the success of Project Gabriel.”

Project Gabriel co-chair Clifton L. Peay, M.D., a member of the VCU Board of Visitors, an ophthalmologist and the founding medical director of The American Eye Center, thanked the public for engaging with the project and providing ideas and feedback.

“I am ecstatic that the community has embraced this project so warmly, as demonstrated by the attendance and by the enthusiasm,” he said. “[Additionally] we have received so many calls from affiliate entities that have been asking us how they can become engaged or involved with this project, too.”

Project Gabriel 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. It is named after Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved Richmond-area man who organized a rebellion in 1800 intended to end slavery in Virginia.

A woman at the end of a long table writing on a giant pad of paper. Seven other people are sitting at the table.
The first public forum, held at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, drew an estimated 100 participants from the VCU and Richmond communities. (Photo by Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

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.

Project Gabriel was formed to evaluate the report and its findings, and determine a path forward. Leveraging insights from students, faculty, staff and the community, the commission will report back to the Board of Visitors by the end of the spring 2023 academic year.

“The commission members will review the feedback received during all of the forums and begin the work of drafting recommendations,” Garland said. “We will also incorporate information received from a host of individuals who have provided subject matter expertise that provided additional context regarding historical events and framed the culture in Richmond during the time period referenced in the HB1980 legislation.”

Stevan Dozier, director of development for the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, was among the participants in the VCU community forum.

“I wanted to participate because I actually come from another university, UNC, that went through a similar process when they found out that essentially the school was built on not just owning slaves but also the sale of slaves,” he said. “That really piqued my interest about the general structure of all universities. And so when I heard VCU was doing a process on reconciliation, I wanted to be a part of it.”