Vaughn-Oliver Plaza dedicated to family of first-known Black employee
The school's agriculturist dubbed Andrew Oliver a "natural tree artist," because of the many trees that he planted around campus.
October 4, 2022
The contributions of Virginia Tech’s first-known Black employee and his family are not forgotten.
Virginia Tech formally dedicated the space outside of the Liberal Arts and Human Science’s Building as the Vaughn-Oliver Plaza on Sept. 29, in honor of Andrew Jackson Oliver and his wife, Fannie Vaughn Oliver.
Virginia Tech community members gathered along the concrete walkway on the crisp autumn morning and listened as several speakers paid tribute to the couple and their family.
Etched into metal, a plaque placed at the front of the plaza acknowledges that the Olivers “embodied the connections between the campus and the local Black community from Virginia Tech’s beginnings.”
Andrew Oliver began working as a janitor at Virginia Tech in the 1870s. At the time, the university was known as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Born a slave and emancipated after the Civil War, Oliver helped maintain the campus of the land-grant military institution. Especially known for the trees he planted around campus, the school’s agriculturist at the time dubbed Oliver a “natural tree artist.”
By the end of 1880, the institution hired four additional Black employees to help Oliver, according to Virginia Tech’s Black history timeline.
“Faulkner once wrote that the past is never dead, it's not even past,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, during the ceremony. “But I've thought about that quote a lot over the last year as we celebrate 150 years of the rich history of this institution. And today is a reminder that some of the figures that helped create that history were not honored in their day and have languished in obscurity, but were no less instrumental to the creation of this institution as more celebrated, better known figures. Today is s an effort to begin redressing that.”
Andrew Oliver married Fannie Vaughn Oliver, who was also born a slave, in 1859. The two had at least seven children, many of whom helped their father plant trees on campus. Their son, Andrew “A.J.” Oliver Jr., is believed to be Roanoke’s first black attorney.
The color of A.J. Oliver’s skin prevented him from enrolling at Virginia Tech as a student. He earned an education from Christiansburg Institute before moving to West Virginia and working as a laborer. There, he trained to become a lawyer, and in 1887 became the first Black person admitted to the bar in West Virginia before moving to Roanoke two years later.
“When CI [Christiansburg Institute] first started, it did not matter what age you were,” said Kathryn King, president of the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association, Inc. “The school was intended to educate all African Americans that wanted to have higher education to help them succeed in life. Andrew Oliver Jr. attending Christiansburg Institute certainly makes me proud.”
The dedication ceremony, delayed by the pandemic, comes after Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors approved a resolution last year to name the plaza after the Oliver family. The plaza was nominated and sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
The space is adjacent to Blacksburg’s New Town neighborhood, which was home to many Black men and women who worked at the university between 1880 and 1960. In addition to the Oliver family, the plaza honors the lives of Black community members whose contributions to the university rarely received recognition.
“If you look at any Blacksburg census for 1920 to 1930, family after family after family of African Americans literally kept this school working,” said Associate Professor of History Daniel Thorp. “They were the ones that made this school function.”
Thorp noted that although Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College had no ownership of enslaved African Americans, the school was built on the profits of their labor.
“I think it’s wonderful that the university has now begun to acknowledge that,” Thorp added.
Other speakers included Shaila Mehra, assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; Wendy Halsey, assistant vice president for facilities operations at Virginia Tech; and Jessie Sherman Eaves, first vice president of the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association, Inc.
During her speech, Mehra honored the continued hard work of the university’s staff during an unprecedented time.
“Not long after the proposal was submitted, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mehra said. “But shut down is not accurate. Facilities, janitorial, dining, and grounds-keeping staff at Virginia Tech, at considerable risk, had to keep coming to work in person. It is fitting that as we gather in the plaza dedicated to two individuals who are custodial employees of this university, that we acknowledge how current-day staff in similar roles met their professional responsibilities, despite the unprecedented stresses in past two years."
Eaves, who is also associate pastor of Greater Mt. Zion United Holy Church in Christiansburg, attended Christiansburg Institute before beginning a 29-year computer science career at Virginia Tech.
A decedent of slaves herself, Eaves said the ceremony was a good start in terms of paying respect to figures who are often overlooked.
“It’s a good beginning,” Eaves said. “And this is a 150-year celebration for Tech, too. So the dedication of the Vaughn-Oliver Plaza is a great thing.”
Written by Kelsey Bartlett