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Two years after white supremacist violence, change continues in Charlottesville

Mike Murphy walked along the Downtown Mall just before midnight that day.

Nothing was amiss as Charlottesville’s then-assistant city manager surveyed his surroundings only a few feet from that spot. You couldn’t tell it was a mere 10 hours after a traumatic moment for Charlottesville and a turning point for the country.

“It was one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life,” Murphy said. “In some ways, nothing was different, and yet everything was and always would be after that.”

Earlier on Aug. 12, 2017, everyone was spread out in this small city before being drawn to the downward slope of the road at the intersection of Fourth and Water streets, a point little different than other urban streets in small cities across the nation.

Murphy had been nearby in the Wells Fargo building. The fire chief was at the University of Virginia’s Zehmer Hall. A clergyman was at a cafe on Water Street. A Daily Progress reporter walked along Water Street while a photographer prepared to take pictures in front of the crowd of counterprotesters.

Their eyes, and those of millions across the nation, soon would go to that point at 1:41 p.m. when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.

In the two years since, that moment and the anti-racist activism that followed have defined this city. Calls for change leading up to the rally only intensified.

Looking back, those who were there have seen positive movement but say there’s still much left to do.

Murphy added: “There’s only a certain number of people in the whole world who will ever really understand it.”

The moment

Walt Heinecke’s day stretches back to the night before, when the UVA professor went to the campus to protect a group of students surrounded by white supremacists wielding Tiki torches. As the situation devolved, he was hit with pepper spray.

Heinecke had acquired a permit for rallies at McGuffey and Justice parks on Aug. 12, 2017, for what he billed as safe places for counterprotesters to gather or return from the main events.

Heinecke was working with a group of about 10 organizers who were communicating with walkie-talkies. As he oversaw the situation in McGuffey Park, a call came over the radio about the attack.

“It was a pretty emotional moment. People were crying and pretty distraught,” he said. “It was a pretty impactful moment in my life and [for] a lot of other community members.”

Councilor Kathy Galvin spent the morning speaking to residents of public housing before heading back to her home.

She was passing Congregation Beth Israel when she saw a surreal scene with Virginia State Police lining one side of the street and neo-Nazis high-step marching on the other.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I said, ‘This is like a nightmare.’”

Fire Chief Andrew Baxter was at the Emergency Communications Center at UVA. However, well-documented management breakdowns meant his people were stuck monitoring radios and social media.

Baxter heard about the attack over the radio and social media, and crews sprang into action.

“Once the casualties have occurred, the response is reasonably standard,” he said. “The response to that [mass casualty incident] is what we do, and it’s an extension of what we do every day.”

Murphy was in the Wells Fargo building downtown with the city manager and director of communications discussing the city’s messaging as the unrest died down.

Then someone came in the room to inform them of the attack.

“In the moment, it’s safe to say although there’s a lot of professionals in the room, it was a pretty shocking experience,” he said.

Don Gathers went to “look the devil in the eye” on that day. By the early afternoon, he was at a cafe on Water Street with other clergy when he heard of the attack. Those gathered ran to the scene.

“We certainly didn’t expect what we saw when we got there,” he said. “It was complete carnage.

“There literally were bodies on every corner of that intersection. Blood and bones just literally everywhere. It was every scene you’ve ever seen from a war movie. There were just casualties littered all over the place.”

Baxter emphasized that the emergency response was unique with the possible threat to firefighters, but it paled in comparison to the dangers faced by police.

“As horrific as what our folks faced at that [mass casualty incident], as horrific as that was, it’s not a one-to-one comparison,” he said.

The aftermath

The response was immediate. At McGuffey and Justice parks, organizers began gathering lists of community organizations and recommendations for how to get involved starting the following day.

In the first six months, the focus was on healing.

“What I saw was a community that came together to address the trauma of individuals and groups of people in Charlottesville,” Heinecke said.

Murphy is approaching 30 years with the city. On that day, it changed the context of his service.

“Something that maybe was the worst-case scenario did happen,” he said. “The name of the place that I invested my whole life in and love a lot would always be associated with whatever happened.

“And that’s true at this time two years later.

“There is not a day that goes by that somewhere in some type of media, print social broadcast, somebody doesn’t use Charlottesville as that example.”

In the time since that day, the city’s leadership has changed dramatically and will continue to do so by the end of the year.

Murphy remains one of the few high-ranking officials who was in the command center on Aug. 12, 2017, and is still serving.

While not all of their departures were tied directly or indirectly to the rally, the following have resigned or retired since 2017: City Manager Maurice Jones, Police Chief Al Thomas, Human Resources Director Galloway Beck, spokeswoman Miriam Dickler, Clerk of Council/Chief of Staff Paige Rice, City Attorney Craig Brown, Registrar Rosanna Bencoach, Charlottesville Area Transit Director John Jones, Information Technology Director Karen Parker and Director Tom Hanson of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Emergency Communications Center.

By Jan. 1, none of five members of the 2017 City Council will be in office.

In the time since, many pointed to one major moment: the election of Nikuyah Walker as the first independent on the council since 1948.

Heinecke and Gathers also mentioned the impact of her selection as the city’s first African American woman to be mayor. Walker did not respond to a request for an interview.

Galvin had been a few votes away from playing a more prominent role in the city’s transition by assuming that role. She was nominated to succeed Mike Signer as mayor in 2018, but Walker was instead appointed.

“There’s a consequence to inexperience, and I hadn’t quite understood that quite so clearly until Aug. 12, 2017,” she said. “I was the most senior councilor who had seen a lot, understood process. ... I also felt that we needed a unifier.

“We needed someone who would speak the language of common ground and not be afraid to.”

In the immediate aftermath, Galvin said it was important to understand exactly what happened and what went wrong on that day. She commended the commission of the report by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy.

Baxter said public safety officials learned the shortcomings in communication in 2017 and now know how to better respond to large incidents.

“What we did in 2017 was assemble groups together but never form a coalition,” he said. “That’s a critical distinction.”

Gathers was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which recommended the city’s Confederate statues be moved, not removed.

Although the City Council went in a different direction, voting for removal, he doesn’t regret his work. He does, however, have to look critically at any possible role in the buildup to Aug. 12.

“If we thought that this is where we would end up as a city, I don’t know if any of us would have signed on for that mission,” Gathers said. “It’s sad that we put in work on that and ultimately this is where we are. ... I have to, for my own sanity, I have to allow myself to think that if they had accepted that recommendation and gone with that, maybe we wouldn’t have ended up at the point that we did.”

As of today, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee sits atop his horse, Traveller, overlooking Market Street Park.

Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson towers in Court Square Park.

While the Lee statue is occasionally vandalized, the only noticeable and consistent change is the orange security fence surrounding it.

Baxter hopes that as 2017 becomes a more distant memory, the lessons learned don’t go away.

“There’s a gravity the further away you get from a critical incident that people want to go back to their normal,” he said.

The future

Some things failed after the rally, such as proposed legislation to allow Charlottesville to remove the Confederate statues and regulate guns.

Heinecke said the city has seen three positive measures of change: elections, social movements and anti-racist policies.

He lauded the primary victories of Democrats Sally Hudson in the House of Delegates and Sena Magill and Michael Payne for City Council.

He pointed to the robust participation at council meetings since that day, with the first getting shut down by protesters.

The real change, he said, can be seen in policy work.

Heinecke praised the city’s commitment to affordable housing in its current budget, which allocated more than $10 million to redevelopment projects.

Heinecke also praised Walker’s work to reform how the city provides funding to nonprofits.

In the community, Heinecke sees activists hard at work rallying against notifications for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and giving public history tours on racism.

Heinecke cheered the work of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition in Albemarle County and that school division’s work to ban hateful imagery in schools.

He was also encouraged by the continuing prosecution of organizers of the Unite the Right rally.

“These people can’t come to a place like Charlottesville and create mayhem and violence and act like American ISIS to spread their hateful message to cause harm in our community,” he said.

Councilor Wes Bellamy, who was unavailable for an interview for this story, pointed out several strides in the aftermath of Aug. 12 in his book “Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue.”

Bellamy praises the hiring of RaShall Brackney as the first African American woman to be police chief. He highlights an agreement to provide wireless services in public housing, a minority business task force, the Police Civilian Review Board and an equity fund.

However, some are concerned about the relationship between the community and police department.

“I don’t think that the level of trust with the police has been re-established,” Heinecke said.

Gathers said the department should be the one to bridge the divide.

“A lot of that has been pointed at the new chief and much of that is unfair because she walked into this quagmire, and I don’t think that it’s fair for folks to blame her for the events of Aug. 12,” Gathers said. “She’s tied to it in perpetuity one way or the other ... but she had nothing to do with the events and actions or inactions of the police that day or that weekend.”

Heinecke said people within the city are still dealing with significant trauma. He also said the day-to-day experiences of African Americans haven’t really changed.

Heinecke wants the community to come together and create an action plan for an anti-racist Charlottesville.

“We have a long way to go when it comes to finishing the job of waking people to white supremacy,” Heinecke said.

Brackney, who responded to questions via email, said the department has increased community engagement.

“We envision a society that respects the dignity of every person and safeguards justice for everyone,” she wrote.

She touted a new organizational structure that will “improve our service delivery systems and to provide a tailored, neighborhood-specific approach to reducing harm in the communities.”

Brackney said the community needs to be willing to work with the department to improve relationships.

“There are always opportunities to be more engaged, more responsive and more attentive to the community’s needs,” she wrote. “However, trust is not built in a vacuum or in isolation — communities and law enforcement must be willing to openly and honestly dialogue about wedge issues and commit to solutions.”

Brackney recommended that different organizations, groups and neighborhoods create a community liaison to establish communications with the department.

Charlottesville’s response to white supremacy has become a model for the nation, Heinecke said.

“Charlottesville showing up on Aug. 11 and 12 and July 8 [2017] has really taken a lead in showing the rest of the country that you have to show up or racism and fascism metastasizes,” said Heinecke, also referring to the rally by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

“My thinking is that what we did on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 and what we’ve done since has really been a shining beacon of hope and direction for the rest of the country.”

Galvin emphasized the city’s investment in affordable housing, equity and climate change in the time since Aug. 12.

She said that although it’s not as flashy, she’s focused on finding dedicated funding streams for the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund.

Moving forward, Galvin hopes the city’s residents can listen to one another and share ideas.

“It would be a dream of mine that we treat each other with mutual respect,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has a lock on any one right idea. That’s my prayer, that, we as a community, we value each other, work with each other from a place of mutual respect and entertain every and all ideas.”

Gathers hopes for a ruling in the lawsuit against the City Council for its decision to remove the city’s Confederate statues, even though he’s “sure there will be appeals.”

“The sooner that we get a ruling on that,” he said, “I think the sooner that the city can quell some of the angst that still hangs over us.”

Restarting life in U.S., doctor fleeing Afghanistan finds medical credentials don't count in Va.

In his native Afghanistan, Ahmad Javed Momand held the most respected position in society: physician.

As a boy, his mother and eight siblings encouraged him to pursue the career, and at 11, he made up his mind that he would.

He was first in his class in high school and went on to complete seven years of medical school and three years of residency to become an anesthesiologist. He worked in a hospital in Kabul, the nation’s capital, where he served the poorest of the poor and treated hundreds of war victims with missing limbs, severe burns and extreme bleeding. Momand liked being able to comfort his patients and help relieve their pain.

But, after moving to Virginia on a Special Immigrant Visa he earned for his family by helping the U.S. Army to train the Afghan National Army’s medical personnel — making him a target for the Taliban — Momand found that his professional experience no longer counted.

It would take him about eight years to qualify for a license in his expertise — four years of studying and four years of residency — all time he couldn’t spare because he’s providing for a family of four.

Instead, he took a 10-week course to become a phlebotomist, a person who takes blood, and now works two jobs, earning $16.58 an hour. It’s barely enough to cover his rent in Manassas, he said.


State officials don’t know how many people like Momand — foreign-trained physicians facing barriers to gain a license — currently live in Virginia, but a new state work group convened at the request of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, and Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, has been tasked with finding out. The group is also charged with assessing options for helping them overcome barriers and considering how they might be used to address health professional shortages in underserved parts of the state.

The Office of Newcomer Services with the Department of Social Services has identified 63 medical professionals — not all physicians — who came to Virginia as refugees or seeking asylum while fleeing danger in their home countries in the past three years, but the number captures only a portion of foreign-trained physicians.

At the same time, many counties in Virginia, particularly in Southwest, Southside and rural areas, are facing health care shortages.

While Northern Virginia has about 3.5 full-time physicians per 1,000 residents, Southwest and Southside have fewer than 2 for every 1,000 residents, and the rest of the state falls somewhere in between, according to the Virginia Healthcare Workforce Data Center.

Tran, whose family came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam when she was an infant, saw an opportunity to seek solutions to two problems facing Virginia residents when she requested that the Virginia Department of Health Professions look into options.

“The commonwealth is facing a shortage of physicians in our rural and underserved communities. It is critical that we explore all possibilities to help ensure Virginians have access to high quality, affordable health care,” Tran said in a statement. “At the same time, we have immigrants currently living in Virginia who are trained physicians in their home countries, but are not licensed to practice here.”

The challenges that Momand has faced also hit home for Tran because her father, who was a dentist in Vietnam, was unable to obtain a license to practice in the U.S. for many years, she said.

“This is an issue that my father and other internationally trained health care workers and professionals face,” Tran said. “Many end up in lower-wage jobs that do not reflect their full potential, affecting their abilities to support their families and contribute to the economy.”

There are three pathways for foreign-trained physicians to become licensed to practice in Virginia: They can obtain a certification from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which certifies readiness to enter American residency or fellowship programs, pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and complete one year of graduate medical education in the U.S.; they can go through the Licensure by Endorsement process, which allows them to be licensed in Virginia if they have been licensed for at least five years in another U.S. jurisdiction; or they can apply for a University Limited License, which allows a physician trained abroad to join a medical school faculty.

Nearly a quarter of practicing physicians in Virginia are foreign-trained, coming from over 130 countries and graduating from more than 700 medical schools, according to a report for the state work group compiled by the Virginia Department of Health Professions.

Of those who went to medical school abroad, about 21%, or 1,068, were U.S. citizens when they entered medical school. The greatest percentage, 24%, were Indian citizens, and the third-largest group, accounting for 8%, were Pakistani citizens.

But for many refugees and immigrants, particularly those who did not plan to leave their native countries, meeting the requirements for medical licensure can be especially challenging.

“When you come to flee, your career is not first on your mind,” said Michelle LaRue, Virginia director of the Court Appointed Special Advocate program and a member of the work group. LaRue’s family left Guatemala unexpectedly because her father’s job as a human rights attorney jeopardized their safety.

At a meeting on Tuesday, LaRue urged the other members of the state work group to remember that those in the U.S. because they were fleeing danger in their native countries face more barriers than those who come on visas granted for educational and occupational reasons.

The work group identified several barriers faced by foreign-trained physicians, including growing competition for limited residency spots; requirements that disadvantage people who graduated from medical school more than five years ago; difficulty obtaining recognized clinical experience; language and cultural barriers that make navigating the U.S. health care system challenging; and cost.


For Momand, finding the time to study for the license exam while working two jobs and raising two young children has proven one of the greatest barriers. His wife is attending community college to become an accountant and works at a furniture store on the weekends. Although he has little spare time, Momand manages to squeeze in four to six hours of studying each day.

The cost also creates a major burden. Most residencies require clinical experience, which is often unpaid, and it costs more than $3,000 to take the license exam.

When Momand realized how difficult it would be to become licensed as an anesthesiologist again, he looked into applying for a two-year nurse anesthetist program, but found he’d need to have a bachelor in nursing degree.

So, for now, while he studies and considers his options, Momand is trying to make the most of his work as a phlebotomist. He enjoys talking with his patients, who, he says, often compliment him on his technique.

And he’s grateful for the opportunity to live in the U.S. He waited four years in Afghanistan for his visa and was ecstatic when he finally arrived in September 2017. It was as if he had died and gone to heaven, he said. In the U.S., he had hot and cold water, consistent electricity, access to a library and fast internet connection. Even the weather was amazing.

But he can’t help but feel the loss of a career he loved and the stress that comes with struggling to make ends meet.

While working in the emergency room, Momand often sees low-income people come in for treatment. Many times, they have traveled from a rural area to get the care they need.

“Some of them are lonely, very sick and they say they are poor and that they need help,” Momand said. “And, when they see me, they say I am so different than others. So many times, I was [told] I was an angel. But I am not. But I am from a very poor country. I know how [it is when] others are in need and you can help. So I do all I can, and that is how I stand out among other workers.”

Momand believes that if he and other international medical professionals were given the help they need to become licensed to practice in Virginia, it would help improve the quality of health care in the state while allowing him and other qualified physicians to have more fulfilling careers.

“I do meaningful work now, too,” Momand said. “But I am capable of doing far more meaningful work. I hope I will be there one day.”

The Virginia Department of Health Professions work group is set to provide recommendations to the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions by Oct. 1.

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Final decision still elusive in federal probe of state police helicopter crash that killed 2 troopers during Charlottesville rally

Two years after a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed, killing two troopers, near the Aug. 12, 2017, white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, federal transportation investigators still are not close to rendering a final verdict on why the aircraft fell out of the sky.

The helicopter, known as Trooper One, went down after flying over the city to relay video of the rally to officers on the ground. Soon after, the National Transportation Safety Board estimated the agency’s final report would be complete within 12 to 18 months. It’s now 24 months and counting.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said 12 to 24 months is now considered a better range for completion of investigations, “but this investigation will not be one of those.”

The investigation into the state police helicopter crash is an “outlier,” Knudson said, because it has turned out to be more complex than many and involves numerous parties.

“I did talk to the investigator briefly, and he indicated that they were still actively working on the investigation and had not yet written the report,” said Knudson, noting that a final decision is now not expected until next year.

“Some are completed in six months, some in three years. So there’s a huge variability,” he said.

The preliminary NTSB report, released just under a month after the crash, suggests mechanical failure of the aircraft’s main rotor system or tail rotor likely caused it to spin out of control and crash, according to an aviation expert who reviewed the report in September 2017 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The victims were state police Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, who was piloting the helicopter, and trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates, 40, who was filming the rally and violence.

Robert Haddow, the 20-year certified flight instructor who reviewed the preliminary report, said the troopers “weren’t doing anything unusual,” such as landing or taking off, when the Bell 407 began to continuously spin and descend into trees, according to his review of the report.

The helicopter began to spin or rotate on its vertical axis and then descend nose down, continuously spinning, before it was no longer visible before the tops of surrounding trees, according to the report, which cited a “preponderance of witness statements.”

The preliminary report said that airworthiness records from the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the aircraft’s maintenance records, showed that the helicopter’s most recent 100-hour inspection was completed Aug. 3, nine days before the crash. At the time, the helicopter had accrued approximately 6,000 total hours of operation.

The same aircraft was heavily damaged in 2010 when it lost power shortly after taking off in Abingdon and made an emergency hard landing, but neither the pilot nor the co-pilot was injured. State police have said the helicopter “was fully repaired by Bell Helicopter” afterward, and the incident was not mentioned in NTSB’s preliminary report.

State police last year secured money to replace the helicopter when the General Assembly appropriated $1.9 million in fiscal 2020 as the first-year debt payment for a new $6 million Bell 407 similar to the one that crashed. It also allocated money for a new medical evacuation helicopter that will replace a 2010 model.

But delivery of the new helicopters will be delayed until 2020.

Legislators also approved funding to hire an additional mechanic to help maintain state police aircraft. In addition, two new trooper-pilots — senior trooper Andy Wood and trooper John Blaine — began training last summer to replenish the aviation ranks after the deaths of Cullen and Bates.

“They are flying and working towards their full qualifications,” said Lt. Shawn Rivard, who succeeded Cullen as the aviation unit’s commander, in an email.

Rivard previously said that strong demand for Bell 407s created a manufacturing back order, and there could be a long wait until the aviation unit received one. Once the order is filled, the aircraft is sent to a “completion center” to add the extra equipment to perform various tasks, he added.

“With the Bell 407, there is ... at least a year and a half to get that completely mission ready, maybe longer,” he said.

Rivard said the Bell 407 that will replace the one that crashed will be delivered in mid-2020, and the new medical helicopter will be delivered in late 2020.

Initial research suggests burial ground below University of Richmond campus

New research from the University of Richmond points to a burial ground of enslaved people lying beneath the campus.

The burial site is believed to be behind Puryear Hall, built in 1927 on the southeastern side of Westhampton Lake near the university’s steam plant. The site’s presence isn’t confirmed — the university is still investigating — but initial evidence discovered by researchers has led to the belief that an unknown number of slaves are buried below the campus.

“There are big questions we are still trying to piece together,” said Derek Miller, assistant director of community relationships and community-engaged learning at the university’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, who has a doctorate in historical archaeology.

The news was first reported by The Collegian, the university’s student newspaper.

The potential discovery comes as universities across the country and the state acknowledge their history with slavery and launch efforts to tell the full stories of their past.

Much of the initial evidence for the burial ground is documentary.

A 1947 Richmond News Leader article describes a small pile of bones being unearthed on the campus. A university spokesperson said at the time, “It has long been believed bodies of slaves were buried in the neighborhood of the university.”

That neighborhood included Zion Town, an African American neighborhood on Ridge Road between River Road and Three Chopt Road.

A history of Zion Town published in 1935 by the University of Virginia said that land once belonged to Ben Green, who owned a plantation that produced lumber. He owned the land that includes what is now the UR campus and the Country Club of Virginia, according to the 1935 book.

The dam near Westhampton Lake, the book said, was where his mill was.

“Some few years ago a gang of laborers digging in the hollow just below this dam uncovered a pile of bones and skulls that are considered to mark the site of the old burying ground for Ben Green’s slaves,” the book said.

The book is the “firmest” evidence of the site, said Dywana Saunders, a research and digitization associate for UR’s Boatwright Memorial Library.

“You can assume because Ben Green had slaves,” she said.

Still, the university — founded 33 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — isn’t certain if the burial ground exists.

A ground-penetrating survey, which uses radar to push images to the surface, is scheduled for Sept. 16. That method, Miller said, has the potential to identify burials, but “it’s important to be cautious on this and not to overpromise.”

The survey is noninvasive, meaning nothing is being moved or dug up, he added.

“We’re doing the best we can to begin to identify possible people and tie names to this,” said Miller, who is assisting in the survey. “There’s good evidence it was probably started when this area was a plantation, but we don’t have a good sense or knowledge of when did it begin and when did it end?”

A report released by President Ronald Crutcher last month said the university will spend the 2020 academic year doing more research and creating a plan to memorialize the slaves.

Then, in academic years 2021 and 2022, it plans to memorialize them; research and connect with descendants; and “support ongoing work to integrate historical context into campus, including development of historical exhibits and interpretive signage.”

“Once additional historical and archaeological research has been completed and verified, our plan would be to memorialize in some way those enslaved people and to support ongoing work to represent meaningfully this history and information at the University,” said university spokeswoman Cynthia Price.

That’s an issue many schools in Virginia and elsewhere are tackling.

The College of William & Mary announced last month that it’s using $1 million to look more at the legacy of slavery and racism at the country’s second-oldest college. The university is also developing a memorial to honor African Americans enslaved by William & Mary.

UVA started its own project in July to identify and contact the descendants of university-owned slaves. Elsewhere, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia have disclosed their slavery connections in recent years.

Now, as research continues on the site, UR seeks to deal with how to memorialize plantation-owned slaves potentially buried underneath its campus.

“Anything dealing with the history of the property is really important for us to understand, especially African American history,” Saunders said.