This Day (No Better Than a Negro Edition)

Published:February 24, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Rotunda and Lawn at the University of Virginia, ca. 1875 (Valentine Richmond History Center, Cook Collection)

Charles BonnycastleGeorge Wythe Randolph, ca. 1866 (Museum of the Confederacy)

On this day in 1838, two University of Virginia students, Franklin English and Madison McAfee, were attempting to disperse a group of free blacks when they were approached by Fielding, a slave owned by the English-born mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle. What happened next was the subject of some dispute.

On March 2, all the relevant parties, plus a few witnesses, were asked to testify before a committee of faculty—well, all the relevant parties except for Fielding. For his part, Bonnycastle stated that the young men administered his slave “a severe and inhuman beating,” and that when he intervened “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered,” he too was beaten.

Others told a different story, one that emphasized Fielding’s insolence. For instance, a witness reported that a student struck the slave several times with his fists and with a hickory cane, both while Fielding was standing and then after he had fallen down. According to the testimony, “Fielding begged—was then suffered to get up and depart—in doing so he picked up a stone, motioned to strike with it and was again insolent.”

At some point, Bonnycastle arrived on the scene and “caught McAfee by the collar of the coat—and said something which witness did not distinctly hear—to which McAfee replied in a loud voice—’Madison McAfee from Mississippi’—and ‘that any man who would protect a negro as much in the wrong as Fielding is no better than a negro himself.'”

Another witness complained that Bonnycastle did nothing to stop Fielding’s insolence, and for that reason an assault on the professor was justified. Thomas Jefferson‘s grandson, George Wythe Randolph, was there. He testified to said insolence and stated that “he had little doubt, that if Mr. Bonnycastle’s manner of interference had been different, the matter might have been easily put a stop to.”

In this instance, blaming the victims worked.

The Faculty having deliberately considered the evidence in this case are unanimously of the opinion, that the alledged outrage against Mr. Bonnycastles servant ought to be left of the cognizance of the Courts.—And they are further unanimously of opinion, that under the peculiar circumstances of this case, no action can be taken by them against Messrs. English and McAfee for disrespect to Mr. Bonnycastle.

The professor died in 1840, at which point no action, civil or otherwise, had been taken against the students. According to an obituary notice in the Southern Literary Messenger, “Mr. Bonnycastle was a close student; and, perhaps, his devotion to study led to a premature death. He took very little exercise, studied in an unhealthy posture, and until a late hour of the night.”

No mention of any toll the attack might have taken.

PS: Our entry on slavery at the University of Virginia will be published in the next week is published now.

IMAGES: Rotunda and Lawn at the University of Virginia, ca. 1875 (Valentine Richmond History Center, Cook Collection); Charles Bonnycastle; George Wythe Randolph, ca. 1866 (Museum of the Confederacy)