Editors Note: This letter was sent to West Virginia State University President Dr. Anthony Jenkins on August 25, 2016. He responded by setting a meeting with the author. In the meeting, he explained that as the new President he wasn’t aware of the story and agreed that it should not represent the school. He laid out several things he would do to rectify the situation which included instructing the student tour guides to stop telling this story, removing it from the website and facilitating a campus-wide discussion.
It’s been seven months and the HBCU has removed a page from its website that highlighted this story among all the romances that came out of the school (http://connect.wvstateu.edu/lovestories), however, this heinous rape story of an African woman still remains on the website as an “Epic Love Story” here (http://www.wvstateu.edu/About/History-and-Traditions/Chapters-From-Our-History.aspx).
The author of the “Epic Love Story” is James Haught, a white man, who is the current editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. When he documented this story he did so from the pedestal of oppressor nation exploitation, which rationalizes the rape of an enslaved African woman as “love.”
We support the position that this story has no place being told as part of the history of any institution of higher learning as it romanticizes severe sexual violence and the overall oppression experienced by African people.
What happened to Mary Barnes was violence pure and simple and so we call on concerned people to message call/email/tweet @ President Jenkins urging him to Kill the Epic Love Story at WVSU.
August 25, 2016
Greetings Dr. Jenkins,
I am writing this letter to express my concern about the “Epic love story” that is currently being used by students and staff, to tell the story of the founding of West Virginia State University (WSVU), a historically black learning institution.
The story tells how a slave owning white man, Samuel I. Cabell, “fell in love” with his “property,” an African woman named Mary Barnes, raped her repeatedly–which produced 13 children– and eventually set them free leaving his money to her upon his death, which she and her offspring used to establish a school for “colored children.”
When I first heard the story I really couldn’t believe that this was being shared as a love story because it is impossible for there to be any love in this type of relationship.
Samuel Cabell was a rabid proponent of slavery, who maintained his ownership of Mary Barnes and other African human beings during this supposed romance. He made his fortune at the expense of African people’s freedom.
As a slave owner, he clearly had power over Mary Barnes who did not have the ability to say no to the advances of her oppressor, because she was his slave.
She was not free to love or to freely choose a mate because he owned her; therefore, any relationship that developed between them was one of oppressor vs oppressed, which is not equitable or voluntary.
She was officially freed only after she bore him 13 children.
Dr. Jenkins, as African people we are here – on land stolen from the indigenous people – as a consequence of the attack on Africa, which turned us into property. Three hundred years of forced free labor of African people is the foundation of the current worldwide capitalist economy which has not benefited us at all.
In fact, it has made our conditions worse – from police violence to poverty, African people are suffering in the worst kinds of ways because of oppression, which started with enslavement and colonization.
What we have now is as a consequence of fighting tooth and nail to regain that which was/is so perversely taken away from us.
So it is a clear contradiction, that in the midst of our historical oppression, that West Virginia State University, an HBCU, would uphold this story of a slave-holding white man who raped an African woman (possibly from childhood) for decades and call it love, just because he left her some change when he died.
This sends the wrong message to existing and new students, specifically black students and black parents.
As an African woman and a parent of a current student, it was especially difficult for me to listen to young black people (the tour guides) recall this rape in a reminiscent fashion, on behalf of your university.
I was disturbed by the realization that WVSU, a historically black institute of higher learning, does not understand this relationship. WVSU is celebrating a man who owned human beings and who raped one of them, repeatedly.
This “love story” trivially dismisses the sexual exploitation and violence of enslaved African people, which was commonplace during that period. Mary Barnes could not be a willing participant, she was a slave, she was his property, and there were consequences if she rejected him.
I understand that WVSU wants to tell the story of Mary Barnes who used the money she received from her attacker to create a place for African children to learn, but by using this “love story” which centers on Samuel Cabell, the rapist, and not the Africans who made his wealth possible, you are perpetuating a lie at the expense of the people the school was built to advance.
It is my hope that you will kill the “love story” and replace it with a story that honors Mary Barnes and the other enslaved Africans owned by Samuel Cabell, who were used as beasts of burden, who were never able to acquire wealth and who probably died miserably in obscurity.
If this is something that you and the WVSU board will consider I am happy to help construct an alternative narrative that will uplift the memory of our oppressed ancestors and contribute to the learning process for all of West Virginia State University students.
A concerned parent