June 6, 2023
Jodi Koste, VCU’s longtime archivist, retires after decades bringing history to life and to light
Over 45 years, she has helped the academic and medical campuses identify and reckon with their rich but challenging pasts.
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Jodi Koste, who has served as de facto historian of Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health for more than four decades, is retiring – her legacy marked by expertise that has forged a more complete understanding of the history of VCU and its predecessor institutions.
Koste, university archivist and senior curator, health sciences, joined VCU Libraries in 1978 and has served as archivist for the MCV Campus in one form or another since 1981. She became the university’s first formally appointed university archivist in 2013.
“When VCU needs answers to questions about our culture and our past, it is to Ms. Koste that the university community turns,” said John Ulmschneider, who served as dean of libraries and university librarian from 1999 to 2020. “When VCU must confront difficult challenges in its heritage, it calls on Ms. Koste. When VCU has sought to celebrate the rich legacy and distinguished record of VCU’s contributions to society, it has asked Ms. Koste first and foremost to help. When physicians, nurses, pharmacists, scholars and others explore the story of health care disciplines in Virginia, Ms. Koste has been their foremost source.”
As an archivist and department head in the Health Sciences Library, Koste was responsible for leading her unit in Special Collections and Archives. She oversaw rare material such as the papers of a mid-20th-century pharmacist who pioneered patient-centered pharmacy care, artifacts from Virginia physicians that reveal how the practice of medicine has evolved, and records related to the VCU School of Medicine dating to 1838.
Koste’s service, however, has gone far beyond the university archivist’s main responsibility of ensuring long-term preservation of and access to materials documenting VCU history.
“[I’ll miss most] working with the collections and working with people that want to use the collections,” Koste said. “And, I mean, certainly it’s been very exciting over the last six years. I could have never guessed all the things that would’ve come down the pike.”
In recent years, Koste has been tasked with providing research and expertise for major university projects investigating the institution’s past.
“Jodi has been an invaluable member of the VCU team, providing critical historical research and factual context for projects that help us reckon with VCU’s past while committing to a diverse and inclusive present and future,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “Jodi’s deep expertise in archival research and the history of nursing and medicine has been incredibly important to our institution and to our work. Her experience and vast knowledge will be missed.”
Revisiting history to make an impact
In 2021, the General Assembly passed HB1980, which directed Virginia’s five oldest colleges and universities — including VCU — to research their historical involvement with slavery and establish benefits for individuals or communities with connections to enslaved labor. VCU commissioned a report to more fully understand the Medical College of Virginia’s connections to the institution of slavery, and Koste provided research and support.
The 2022 report, “Slavery and the Medical College of Virginia,” found that MCV was built and operated using the labor of enslaved people. Based on the findings, VCU established Project Gabriel: President’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice in spring 2023 to determine a path forward, leveraging insights from the Richmond and VCU communities.
Project Gabriel co-chair Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact for VCU Health System and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity, said Koste served as an amazing resource for the historical initiatives.
“She has contributed extensive background knowledge to each that helped the participants gain a clear understanding of not only the historical facts but also the culture and climate of the periods which both are focused,” Garland said. “The organization has been fortunate to have an archivist who is not only dedicated to uncovering and preserving its history but also passionate about ensuring faculty, staff, students and community members have ready access to the information.”
In 2017, following violent events in Charlottesville, VCU established a committee to explore how to address issues related to symbols of the Confederacy, slavery, white supremacy and other items of an exclusionary nature. One of its first steps was a comprehensive audit of such symbols, plaques and statues, prepared by Koste. The work ultimately led to the Board of Visitors deciding in 2020 to de-commemorate a number of buildings and monuments on VCU’s campuses that honored historical figures with ties to the Confederacy.
John Kneebone, Ph.D., former chair of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, co-chaired the committee of faculty members, staff, students and administrators who reviewed VCU’s connection to Confederate symbols and how the school should make future decisions about when and how to commemorate.
“I met Jodi not long after I arrived in Richmond in the late 1980s, and from the beginning, her wide-ranging expertise – spanning from the early years of MCV before the Civil War to the people who guided the merger with RPI in 1968 and after – has been a resource that I and many others have called on over and over. She always responded fully and efficiently,” Kneebone said. “University leaders also called regularly on her expertise when a historical issue arose, and she supplied them with accurate, contextualized information, and quickly. Without breaking a sweat, she has right-at-hand knowledge of Richmond’s and Virginia's history, of higher education and of the medical professions.”
Prior to the de-commemoration project, Koste had already started investigating past discriminatory practices at the Medical College of Virginia, after VCU School of Medicine instructors reached out with questions about the institution’s history as part of a second-year curriculum on historical trauma. Since then, Koste has delivered an annual lecture to health sciences students and residents on the history of VCU and VCU Health.
“Her greatest impact on the community is likely found in interactions between patients and VCU-trained health care professionals who benefited from her expertise,” wrote Teresa Knott, associate dean of libraries and director of the Health Sciences Library, in a recent letter about Koste. “Because of her work, resident physicians/dentists and health professions students better understand the deep distrust Black, Indigenous and people of color in Central Virginia may hold for the Medical College of Virginia and medicine in general. Sharing this knowledge leads to health care providers who are more compassionate and caring with their patients.”
Unearthing and retelling a story
Koste also has contributed significantly to the East Marshall Street Well Project. It was established in 2013 to facilitate a process with the Richmond community that ensures the appropriate study, memorialization and reburial of the 19th-century remains of at least 44 adults and nine children — most of whom were African or African Americans — that were discovered in an abandoned well uncovered during construction on the MCV Campus in 1994.
Koste was appointed to the project’s planning committee in 2013 and has continued to serve on the East Marshall Street Well Implementation Committee on Research. She was at a conference in 1994 when the remains were discovered during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, and she returned to Richmond to witness the excavation. Koste had the foresight to photograph the removal of the remains from the well, and her photographs are the among the small number that exist.
Jodi has left an indelible mark on the university, evidenced by her work to create the first university archives policy, as a member of universitywide committees tasked with addressing challenging moments of its history, and as a mentor to countless students and new professionals. She embodies the Ram spirit — courageous, resilient and resourceful.Wesley Chenault, former head of Special Collections and Archives at VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library
As the project has explored a path forward to restore the honor, dignity and respect of those individuals who were denied basic human rights in both life and death, Koste has provided important information about the history of medicine and practices at the Medical College of Virginia. Among her many contributions, she co-authored a three-part report, “Artifacts and Commingled Skeletal Remains from a Well on the Medical College of Virginia Campus,” that identified and documented the bones and artifacts from the well, established the temporal context and interpreted the relationship of the materials to the site’s use and history as an early medical school in the city of Richmond.
Koste, along with members of the Family Representative Council and VCU medical students, accompanied the ancestral remains when they were returned to Richmond from the Smithsonian in 2019. She also was a key advocate for the 2021 installation of panels in the Kontos Building that detail the story of the remains discovered at the site.
“The banner exhibit in the Kontos Building is not permanent, but at least it’s something until the Family Representative Council makes its final plans for memorialization,” Koste said. “In the meantime, there is this [installation], and since medical students still meet in that auditorium there, they will now know the story. And there’s somewhere you can go on campus and learn about this – which of course, for the longest time there was absolutely nothing. And we are now 29 years out from that discovery.”
During her 45-year career at VCU, Koste is most proud of what she calls “public commemoration,” meaning her work that supported installation of historic markers. They include one honoring the School of Nursing building’s namesake, Sadie Heath Cabaniss; another for the Egyptian Building; medallions marking VCU’s 40th anniversary in 2008; and a public history installation behind the Kontos Building that highlights the history of St. Philip Hospital and Academy Square.
“It’s nice to come on campus now and know a little bit about the history of the institution,” Koste said.
She is also proud of her work with VCU Facilities and conservators to preserve a Depression-era Works Project Administration mural in the lobby of the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Medical Education Center.
Koste’s impact, though, extends beyond the physical campus, said Wesley Chenault, former head of Special Collections and Archives at VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library and now associate director for strategic initiatives and programs at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.
“Jodi has left an indelible mark on the university, evidenced by her work to create the first university archives policy, as a member of universitywide committees tasked with addressing challenging moments of its history, and as a mentor to countless students and new professionals,” Chenault said. “She embodies the Ram spirit — courageous, resilient and resourceful.”
Throughout her career, Koste has lent research expertise to an array of projects exploring VCU and medical history. They include the first history of the university, “Virginia Commonwealth University: A Sesquicentennial History,” by Virginius Dabney in 1987; the film documentary “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and Exploitation of Black Bodies,” by Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., in 2011; and the book “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” by Chip Jones in 2020.
She also provided research support for “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009.” The 2020 book, co-authored by Kneebone and former VCU President Eugene Trani, Ph.D., tells the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.
Trani said Koste’s decades-long dedication and commitment to VCU’s MCV and Monroe Park campuses has been exemplary.
“As a historian, I respect and appreciate her dedication to preserving and providing access to the documentary record of VCU and the VCU Health System,” Trani said. “As president of VCU, I could depend on Jodi to make background reports quickly and fully on the various historical issues that inevitably arise at an institution tracing its past back to 1838.”
A spirit of collaboration and compassion
Koste also has collaborated with every VCU health science school on commemorating anniversaries, as well as working with the Richmond Academy of Medicine, the Virginia Board of Nursing and the Virginia Nurses Association.
“Jodi has been a friend and resource to the Richmond Academy of Medicine for decades,” said James G. Beckner, executive director of the organization. “She knows our history better than almost anyone. RAM recently recognized her for her outstanding service, for her role in our 200th anniversary video and for her decades of care as keeper of our history. Jodi is amazing and greatly appreciated.”
Over the decades, Koste has been a leader in her profession, serving in organizations such as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, the Society of American Archivists and American Association for the History of Medicine. Notably, she served for 12 years in a leadership role and main point of contact for the latter. Koste also has been named an “honorary nurse” by two Virginia nursing organizations for her service.
In her letter, Knott noted that in addition to helping VCU reckon with its past, Koste “has a talent for bringing history to life for the communities we serve.” And she has done so with conviction and purpose.
“Jodi has a strong moral compass paired with compassion, empathy and modesty,” Knott wrote. “No matter the source, she treats every request or invitation to share her deep knowledge of VCU as a valuable opportunity. She shares her knowledge freely, delighting in inviting others to love VCU and our story, warts and all, the way she does.”
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