Commencement Address, May 21, 2023
University of Virginia
Thanks so much, Whitt.
Good morning, to you all— honored members of the Board of Visitors, my hard-working colleagues on the staff and faculty, faithful family and friends, but most of all good morning to the graduating class of 2023!
Wow! You should see this view! Y’all are beautiful! And a little intimidating! You’re intimidating not just because there are so many of you but because you are fierce and courageous. When COVID demanded isolation, this class forged creative and courageous communities. When tragedy struck last November, you demonstrated compassion and care, reaching out, supporting, crying. You have loved well, and love conquers fear. Yes, you are a courageous bunch of love warriors.
As I’ve been thinking through what I might say this morning, one of the first questions I had to answer was “Which Louis Nelson to bring to the podium?”
Maybe the architectural historian, the scholar who is always ready to deliver a monologue on the gravity of the past and the ways that history is inscribed in the buildings and landscapes that tell us who we have been and who we are.
Maybe the sometimes-quirky goofball. The college guy who danced all night to Whitney Houston, MC Hammer, and the B52s; the dad who spent weeks planning spectacular decorations for his kid’s birthday cakes.
Or maybe I bring Louis Nelson, the tender-hearted. The grown man who cries in movies, who feels the pain of having hurt someone, but who also knows eternal forgiveness and Amazing Grace.
I ask this question because when I first received the email from President Ryan inviting me to deliver today’s address, my first thought was really? The last person these students want to hear is some nutty professor. But then I read more closely, and I noticed that the nominating committee wished me to address the topic of public service. As many of you will know, UVA was founded with the specific intent of graduating students committed to our nascent republic. Research has shown that our incoming students arrive at UVA with more experience in public service than the majority of our peers. Public service is in the DNA of this place. To that end, our team has just launched an exciting new program called Public Service Pathways that we hope will only deepen our preparation of you, our graduates, to serve our great Commonwealth and the fragile Democracy that undergirds this great nation. In this program, we believe that excellence in public service centers the flourishing of others. Now I’ve come to this conviction because I’ve learned some lessons over the years, three lessons that I’ll use to shape my remarks this morning: Be Human, Commit to Community, and See the Gap.
Lesson 1: Be Human.
I’m an architectural historian, but one of my field methodologies is building archaeology. I’m trained to examine old but otherwise unremarkable buildings to look for subtle aesthetic and technological signatures that allow me date a building and its changes over time. For example, in one of my classes I deliver a three hour lecture on the history of the nail. Turns out, most buildings have nails. By examining a few nails, one can pinpoint them in technological time and therefore locate the building’s construction in a specific historical era. It’s a fun party trick.
Soon after I arrived at UVA, a colleague suggested that I teach a summer field school that would train UVA students in these field methods. Having completed a summer of work for my dissertation in Jamaica, I reconnected with some Jamaican partners and together we planned and launched a summer field school in Falmouth, on the north coast. The first few summers went pretty well. Students worked with Jamaican carpenters and masons learning the fundamentals of traditional building trades. We documented a range of important early buildings and helped stabilize and preserve the houses of those unable to afford these necessary repairs. Students were learning a lot. But there was one homeowner who remained uninterested in our research project. She lived in what promised to be a very important two-room house. Early in the third summer, I knocked on the door, and with the warmest possible smile I shared what we were hoping to accomplish during the field school. She smiled back and closed the door.
A few weeks into our fourth summer, we learned that a radio station had selected Falmouth as the stage for a nationally-broadcast street party. The evening came and the students insisted that their quirky professor come along. Thousands of people filled the square and adjacent to the Courthouse stood a huge bandstand with enormous speaker walls and floods of lights. At one break in the music, the DJ came on stage and announced a dance contest. She invited up a very excited late elementary age girl from the front of the crowd, a buff and shirtless 20-something, and then she pointed out at the crowd. “Tall white man!” I looked around for the other 6’4” white guy.
So I made my way to the bandstand. The first two were amazing dancers, setting the crowd on fire. Then it was my turn. The speakers exploded with Jamaican Dancehall. So I kicked off my Birkenstocks and said to myself… ”Its Hammertime!”
My students froze wide-eyed, mouths gaping. The whole square exploded in astonished cheers. I have a small reminder of that night that lives in the corner of my office: a walking stick carved by one of the Jamaican artisans and presented to me by the team on our last night. Bring it out! Yes, it says “Crazy Legs Nelson.”
So the next day, I received a message that Rosie Smalls, the owner of that little house down the street, had requested a visit. She opened the door with a smile: “you’re quite a dancer.” And so began the first of many long conversations on her porch. We shared stories of our children and our otherwise very different lives. Ms. Rosie invited me to church the next Sunday, and by the end of the season, she told me that if our team returned the next summer, I might bring students to document her house.
Ms. Rosie wanted to know that I was human. Bringing my full self to table first at the street party, but then again and again over many conversations, we built trust. Only when Ms. Rosie knew that I was fully human did she invite me into her world. My first approach to her had been as a scholar. But she learned that I was also a goof-ball, that I loved to dance. She also came to know me as a white man prepared to confess his own brokenness. We all face the temptation to curate multiple selves and when we do, we wear masks. Ms. Rosie taught me to reject that fragmentation, to integrate the scholar, the goof-ball, and the tender-hearted friend.
Just this past fall, I was back in Falmouth and visited Ms. Rosie. Her house has been repainted brilliant orange and still has a tight roof. The royal palms we helped her plant in her backyard are now fully grown. Her daughter graduated from high school and came to college in the US. And Rosie proudly shares the history of her little house with any interested passersby.
Lesson 2: Commit to Community.
Many of you will know that in August of 2017 this very space became the stage for a hateful march of torch-bearing white supremacists, followed by a day of horror downtown. Within weeks of those events Andrea Douglas from the Jefferson School and Jalane Schmidt, now of the Memory Project here at UVA, began to dream of a community-centered event that would showcase strength and resilience through collective action. Those convictions eventually took the form of a week-long pilgrimage of 100 representatives from across the community traveling to Civil Rights sites through the South. I was grateful that Andrea and Jalane invited me to join their efforts as a representative of UVA’s senior leadership. So on July 8, 2018, two buses left from Charlottesville on a week-long journey that would change my life. We spent days at various historic sites from Appomattox to the National Center for Civil Rights in Atlanta. Recognizing that we were from Charlottesville, these sites carried a particular poignancy. Even so, I sensed a deeper pain carried by my African American colleagues. Yet, we were building community, and they welcomed me into their moments of pain. Our final stop was Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. There we delivered a jar of soil from the site just outside of Charlottesville where in 1898 an unmasked white mob lynched John Henry James, a Black man accused of making a pass at a white woman. We cried together. We spent long hours talking, processing the weight of these histories for our own city. But we also laughed and, yes, we danced. Those long conversations, those hours together, birthed sustained friendships. We have since dined at each other’s houses, and over time, these friends have expanded my imagination for community here at UVA and in Charlottesville.
And that was the point. In extending to me an invitation to join them, Andrea and Jalane invited me into not just a temporary community, but into sustained relationships. They taught me the important lesson of committing to a community where I was in the minority. Now, some of you just gave me the side-eye. You are saying to yourself, “Nelson, I’ve been in the minority on Grounds every day for the last four years!” That’s right. And I want to say that in making that commitment, you have made UVA a far better place. By bringing your distinct experiences and viewpoints, you have challenged all of us to think more carefully, more critically. We are all smarter because you are here. We at UVA are committed to diversity because we are committed to excellence in education. So to those of you who know what it means to be in the minority here at UVA, I see you and I thank you.
For the rest of us, I have this word of advice: seek out and commit to a community where you are in the minority. We must reject the echo chamber of constrained communities and build instead courageous communities that challenge us to listen well, to build empathy, to think more critically, with greater nuance and complexity. The dehumanizing extremes of isolated self-determination or suffocating social homogeneity are best mediated by a daily commitment to healthy democratic society.
Lesson 3: See the Gap.
Earlier this semester, I had the pleasure of hearing lawyer, social justice advocate, and faithful Christian Bryan Stevenson speak in JPJ. Stevenson spent his time unpacking his life-long commitment to challenging the structural inequities built into America’s broken justice and carceral system. He has a deep love for America’s ideal commitments to justice and truth and he is equally passionate about bridging the gap between those ideals and the realities on the ground. He is quick to remind us that America has the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens of any country in the world and that the preponderance of those individuals are African American men, far greater than their representation in the general population. He sees the gap between the ideal and the real and he has spent his life closing that gap, one wrongly adjudicated case at a time.
The importance of this work has come home to me over the past few years as I have had the honor of working closely with the leadership of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA. DeTeasa Gathers, Bertha French, and Cauline Yates advocate for hundreds of people here in Charlottesville and across the country who are descended from those who worked as enslaved laborers here at UVA. They have helped me see that this amazing space— this Academical Village—is also an African American historical site, a landscape deeply inscribed with memories erased from formal historical record, a landscape where hundreds of couples fell in love, struggled to raise children, and died, often separated from their loved ones.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so proud to see UVA leading this conversation. We have researched and published the truths of our history as books with shorter versions disseminated widely on our digital platforms. One of our faculty launched and now convenes the nationally recognized consortium called Universities Studying Slavery, nearly 100 universities seeking to better understand their own stories. And the nationally celebrated Memorial to Enslaved Laborers has become the gold standard for demonstrating the importance of continuously marking and reshaping our landscapes because when words fail us, as they so often do, our buildings and our landscapes remind us who we are and in so doing remind us also who we wish to be. DeTeasa, Bertha, and Cauline help me see the gaps in personal access and experiences not just in the past but in the present and they help me see ways those gaps might be closed. These women have reminded me of the truth that slavery happened to one person at a time and they have challenged me to confirm Jefferson’s conviction that we should follow the truth wherever it may lead. The truth of that past demands a response in the present. Yes, this is a university whose founding story is inextricably linked to the promises of a fledgling democracy. We will not turn our back on the ideals woven by Jefferson and others into the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. But it is also a place that was home to a strong and vibrant community systematically excluded from those same promises, those same rights. These foundational documents not only permit but encourage transformation and growth; they were, in fact, born of revolution. History reports that we have a moral responsibility, an institutional debt. And at UVA we are truth-tellers, courageous enough to go toe to toe with our own demons. Do we have the courage to see the gap between the ideal and the real both in the past and in the present? This is hard work, yes. But UVA is worth it. America is worth it.
We do this work out of love for alma mater, because the University of Virginia has the unique opportunity to lead the nation towards the complexities of our moment. This is not an invitation to self-flagellation, to beating ourselves up. Let me be clear. I have dedicated 2 decades of my life to this institution. I love UVA from the core of my being. I want UVA to be the very best institution it can be. But we cannot be that great institution unless we have the courage to tell the truth about who we have been. Only then we are equipped to lead with integrity. This is an invitation to the work of loving our neighbor, to bringing our best selves to the table, and to committing to flourishing communities, for what else is democracy, if not a commitment to flourishing communities? But we cannot do this work with courage and humility without the lessons we have now all learned from Ms. Rosie, Jalane and Andrea, and Bertha, DeTeasa, and Cauline, and I challenge all of you to carry these lessons forward. What’s lesson 1?
- Be human; bring your whole self to the table.
- Commit to communities; especially across differences
- See the gap; and have the courage to close the gap
These three lessons, I believe, are the fundamentals of a life committed to public service. And public service is democracy in action.
Let me end by speaking directly to you by school:
Where is Nursing, Education and Medicine? Nursing, Education and Medicine, your first commitment is by definition the well-being of your neighbors. You are here because your first love is to love others. Thank you.
OK, Architecture, Data Science, and Engineering, where are you? Architecture, Data Science, and Engineering, you all give shape to real and digital environments, spaces that can be powerful agents of democracy or of exclusion. Remember that your highest call is to make spaces of healthfulness and justice.
SCPS? Small but mighty! You are invited into the work of engaging communities, listening to their needs and pursuing their betterment through the choices you make every day.
And lastly, where are Batten, Commerce, Darden, and Law? Batten, Commerce, Darden, and Law, your commencement is an invitation into the halls of power. Reject the temptations of self-interest; take the high road and direct your power toward collective flourishing. In following the narrow path by caring for some, you strengthen democracy for all.
And for all of you, today you graduate into the ranks of Wahoos incredibly well-equipped to do this work. You are all called to love your neighbors, created spaces of health and justice, engage your communities, and use your power for positive change. As you step past the Academical Village remember these three lessons and let them be a reminder that to be a graduate of the University of Virginia is to be deployed toward democracy. You are courageous love warriors, forged in the crucible of COVID, and now commissioned to lead this nation towards the ideals to which we all aspire. Go forth and spread democracy! Congratulations on your graduation!
Presented by Louis Nelson
Professor of Architectural History and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach