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U.Va. History for Kids

Mr. Jefferson’s Dream Comes True

Monticello: The Home of Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States, from 1801 to 1809After he had been president for eight years, Thomas Jefferson came back to his home in Virginia and thought about what was most important to him. He wanted young people in Virginia to have good schools. He decided to build a University—school where people could learn to be the leaders of the country.

Building the University

“Academical” means that everyone would be there to learn and study. “Village” means it would be like a little home for everyone, students and teachers.

He imagined what the perfect University would look like. He called his idea an academical village. He started drawing plans for the buildings that a University needed.

The Rotunda at U.Va.
People still call the University of Virginia “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”

Old Sketch of Mr. Jefferson's Academical VillageHis idea was to have houses for the teachers and rooms for the students, all connected to one another. Jefferson built ten houses that he called pavilions. Teachers taught classes downstairs and lived upstairs. The pavilions and rooms opened out to a grassy yard called the Lawn (see virtual tour). At the center of the University, he built a beautiful domed building. He called it the Rotunda. At first the Rotunda was a library. Now it is more like a museum. You can visit it and learn about Thomas Jefferson and his University.


The First Teachers

The first teachers at the University of VirginiaWorkmen started laying down the stones for the first pavilion in 1817. But it took years until all the buildings were finished and ready. The first pavilion to be built was Pavilion VII. Today people can hold meetings or stay overnight in Pavilion VII. Thomas Jefferson hired the smartest people he could find to be the first teachers at the University of Virginia. The University opened in March 1825. There were 123 students.

In the Early Years

Edgar Allan Poe attended U.Va. in 1826. Edgar Allan Poe is famous for writing spooky stories and poems. His most famous poem is called “The Raven.” You can visit a room at the University today and see how it might have looked in 1826, when Poe lived there.

Some say that Thomas Jefferson loved to stand on the mountain where he lived and gaze down through a telescope at his University. He was proud to see students going to the school he had built. One man who went to the University in that time became famous as a writer later. His name was Edgar Allan
On this date, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, our second and third presidents. It was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.Poe
. The students at the University loved Mr. Jefferson. They were all sad when he died on
July 4, 1826. They all walked up to Monticello for his funeral.

A Sad Night at the University

Thomas Jefferson believed that the students at his University should take care of themselves and make their own rules and decisions. Sometimes that good idea didn’t work out well.

John A. G. Davis John A. G. Davis was a teacher of law. Students really liked him.   U.Va. student in 1853 Here’s how a student at the University looked in 1853.

One night in 1840, some students got wild and went running up and down the Lawn. A professor came out of his pavilion to find out what the noise was, and all of a sudden someone shot him! He died the next day. Students at the University were so upset, they decided they needed to make better rules.

The Honor Code

A “pledge” is a promise. “Honor” means that everything you do makes you feel proud of yourself and makes others believe you are a good person.

Students agreed that they would behave better and that they would watch over each other to make sure everyone kept that promise. The teachers wanted to trust the students. They suggested that whenever a student took a test or wrote a paper, he would sign an honor pledge promising he had not cheated. Even today—almost 200 years later—students at the University of Virginia live by an important Honor Code.

General Custer Comes Through

President Abraham Lincoln President Abraham Lincoln believed that the United States should remain one country, or a union.
John Singleton Mosby, a U.Va. student who was also a famous Confederate soldier John Singleton Mosby, a famous soldier for the Confederacy, was a student at the University of Virginia.

The Civil War went on in the United States from 1861 to 1865. The Confederacy wanted to become a different country. The Union won the war, and the United States stayed together as one country.In 1861, the Civil War began between the northern states of America, called the Union, and the southern states of America, called the Confederacy.

Soldiers fought many battles, and a lot of them took place in the Virginia countryside near the University of Virginia. Doctors and nurses set up beds inside the Rotunda. It was a good place to take care of soldiers who were hurt. George Armstrong Custer first fought in the Civil War. He became famous for fighting Indian wars later, too. One day in 1865, General Custer marched his Union soldiers right up to the Rotunda. People were afraid that they would burn the University down, but they knew what an important place it was. They stayed four days and then they
marched on.

The Great Fire

The Rotunda fire of 1895
The Rotunda fire of 1895 was too big to put out. It burned all day.
If you look carefully, you can see a chip taken out of the cape in this statue. That happened when students rescued it from the fire in 1895. Statue of Thomas Jefferson affected by the fire of 1895

On a Sunday morning, October 27, 1895, a student walked past the Rotunda and saw smoke coming out from the corner of the building. He ran to tell people about it. The University’s bell ringer sounded an alarm. Teachers, students, and people from the town of Charlottesville all came to watch as the fire grew and the beautiful Rotunda went up in flames.

One woman who watched the Rotunda burn wrote this in a letter: “Last night it looked as if the whole Rotunda was lit up from top to bottom.”The Rotunda fire of 1895Brave people ran into the building and rescued books, papers, and even the big statue of Jefferson. That night, there was not much left of the Rotunda. People believed in the University, though, and they started planning to build it back right away.

The New Lawn

Architect Stanford White redesigned the Rotunda. Stanford White designed many important buildings in the United States during the 1890s.

A famous architect named Stanford White made designs to rebuild the Rotunda and also to build three new buildings facing the Rotunda at the other end of the Lawn. The three new buildings were added to the Lawn around 1900. Before, you could see from the Rotunda out to the mountains. It took a lot of work to build new buildings and keep classes going.

Alderman was famous for teaching and giving speeches. He was president of the University of Virginia from 1904 to 1931.A man named Edwin Anderson Alderman became the first president of the University of Virginia.


The University Turns 100

Most people consider that the University began in 1819, even though classes did not start until 1825. In 1819, the leaders of Virginia agreed that they would help pay for the university that Jefferson wanted to build. The University of Virginia was one of the first state universities. It was the first state university to be established without any connections to a church.

World War I was fought in Europe. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
James Rogers McConnell, a U.Va. student and famous World War I pilot James Rogers McConnell, a brave pilot, was flying over France when enemy guns shot him down in 1917. A statue at the University honors him.

When it came time to celebrate the University’s 100th birthday, though, there was a war going on: World War I.

Many teachers and students left the university to fight in the war. One student became a famous wartime airplane pilot.

An “alumnus” is a person who went to a school in the past. “Alumni” is the plural of “alumnus.” These alumni, who came to the 100th birthday of the University of Virginia, had been students there before the Civil War. Students who attended U.Va. before the Civil War

So the birthday celebration had to wait until 1921. Lots of people came to the party, including 800 alumni.

Speeches and dances took place on the steps of the Rotunda. Dancers acted out the history of the United States. One woman dressed up as “The Spirit of Liberty.”

Cars were a new invention in 1921.

People drove their cars up to Monticello to honor the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

More Kinds of Students

Gregory Swanson, the first black student admitted to U.Va. Gregory Swanson was already a lawyer when he came as the first black student to the university.
Walter Ridley, the first African American graduate of U.Va. In 1953, Walter Ridley was the first African American to receive a degree from the University of Virginia.

In the days of Thomas Jefferson, neither black people nor women were allowed to attend the University of Virginia. That changed a century later.

The university’s first black student was a man named Gregory Swanson. He went to law school in 1950. A school principal named Walter Ridley was the first black person to graduate from the University of Virginia. He became a
By 1975, half of the students coming to college at the University of Virginia were women.Doctor of Education in 1953.

Women had taken classes at the university for a long time, but the first women to enter college and go all four years came in 1970.

A Great University

University of Virginia Students
Students can study arts and sciences, architecture, business, education, engineering, law, medicine, or nursing at the University of Virginia.
You can even see U.Va. teams play on TV: football in the fall and basketball in the winter. Cavalier Football

Today, most people agree that Thomas Jefferson got what he wanted: a great university in his state, Virginia, near his hometown, Charlottesville. When Jefferson was alive, there were never more than about 200 students attending. Now there are about 20,000 students who go to the University of Virginia.

Some students are proud to be able to live on the Lawn, near the Rotunda, in the old buildings from Thomas Jefferson’s days. Many other students live in new buildings. University students have fun and work hard in the buildings called dormitories. The University has a big hospital that helps many people get well. Some people stay overnight in the hospital. Others just come to see the doctors during the day. University of Virginia teams play sports in fall, winter, and spring.

One magazine, U.S. News and World Report, said that in 2013 U.Va. was the second best public university in the nation.

The United Nations put the University of Virginia Rotunda and Lawn on a list of the most important buildings on earth. It is a World Heritage Site.Many people say that the University of Virginia is one
of the best in the United States
. Visitors come every day to see the University of Virginia. They know it is an important part of American history.


By Susan Tyler Hitchcock (Graduate, Arts & Sciences, ‘78)

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