editor's note

Illustration by Gordon Schmidt

After a few years of neglect, I recently dusted off my 20-year-old Trek hybrid and started bicycling several times a week, often to work and back. The front steps of Puryear Hall are a very fine parking spot, and there’s always a space available.

Door-to-door from my house to Puryear is about 3 miles, but if I leave early enough in the morning or have time after work, I’ll stretch it out to 8 or 10, climbing neighborhood hills and wandering down unfamiliar streets. That’s how I found myself on Ziontown Road for the first time this summer.

A fellow cyclist had suggested that I take it. He knew it as a rolling, tree-lined road that cut an inviting path into the neighborhood behind the lake. It is that, but it is also something else. Its name signals a complex history of fortitude, discrimination, migration, and ultimately, what Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera called the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Ziontown Road marks an area just west of campus where African Americans built a thriving community in the decades after the Civil War. Its founding was led by an emancipated black man named Henry Pryor, who had to buy the land twice after being swindled the first time. What became his property used to be part of a plantation that also included the land where the university now sits; Westhampton Lake was the plantation’s mill pond.

Some of the people who lived in Ziontown likely helped build Richmond’s current campus and cared for its earliest students at a time when the university would not admit their children. It was certainly the home of Esau Brooks, who began working for the university in 1914. For decades, he was both a trainer and groundskeeper for athletics and was described as a UR “institution” by this magazine when he died in a house fire in Ziontown in 1957, not long after the death of his beloved wife.

Little of this history is evident today to anyone biking past the enviable 20th- and 21st-century houses on Ziontown Road, but without a doubt, this history still shapes lives, whether it’s understood or not. As one of the features in this issue describes, a significant effort has begun to more fully understand how this university’s history has shaped it and how we can use this knowledge in service of building a more inclusive campus community to enhance the academic experience for everyone here. Students are asking for it, two of the nation’s sharpest historians are guiding it, and offices across campus are supporting it.

The past is always present. What changes is how much of it we see and how we, as an educational community, decide to act on what we know.