Difference makers

In one byline I’m DeWald; in the other, Dewald. But I’m not complaining. The reason U.Va. got two shots at getting my name right is that they were nice enough to publish two profiles I wrote for their magazine’s “Difference Maker” department.

They appeared a year apart, in the 2015 and 2016 spring issues. The women at the heart of each story deserve the magazine department’s title, but their stories came into my hands very differently.

I saw Lauranett Lee speak on a panel, probably in 2013, about her work combing through slaveholders’ records at the Virginia Historical Society to find details about the people they held in human bondage. She was using these details to build a database that people with ancestors held as slaves could search to begin to reconstruct their lost family histories. I’m moved just typing about it now.

What really struck me, though, was the way Lauranett described how difficult the process was, not technically but emotionally. She immersed herself in our nation’s deepest injustice in order to rescue the names of heretofore unknown victims. Living in those records day in and day out took a harsh toll on her as she turned over the names of men, women and children, and the dollar valuations next to them.

I got in touch with her for an interview and wrote a 1,200-word piece with no idea where it might ever appear, if anywhere. I just wanted to know more, and writing was my way in. At a friend’s suggestion, I pitched her alma mater. The new piece that resulted was very different than the one I pitched, but I was happy with both. Most of all, I really admired Lauranett’s work and perseverence and wanted to get her story out there, even if only a little.

The story prompted two letters (maybe more?) that the editors published in the following issue. A man in Ohio wrote this: “One of life’s pleasures, and a rationale for hoarding printed material, is to reread or peruse a magazine or brochure and discover something you may have skipped or skimmed earlier. So it was for me, after thumbing through and reading much of the spring issue, that the story about Lauranett Lee’s research caught my eye. What a wonderful story! And what an important project, despite its obvious heartache. I salute her and writer Matthew DeWald [sic, argh] for this report.”

A woman in New York, the parent of a 2010 graduate, wrote this: “We still visit UVA once or twice a year, and as we meander along the pathways of the Academical Village we cannot help but wonder and imagine about the many slaves who built this gem of a university. Who were they and what were their stories? Thank you, Lauranett Lee! I look forward to receiving updates on this extremely valuable project.”

In a comment on the online version a story, a man asked about meeting with Lauranett to uncover his own family’s history. It was a gift to me to write about her work.

Months later U.Va. came back pitching me a story. Its alum Nicole Hurd has built a Peace Corps-like program called College Advising Corps that sends recent college graduates into under-resourced high schools across the country to help minority, first-generation college, and students from other groups under-represented in higher ed get to college. Far too many fall through what we politely call the cracks but are more like gaping holes. Something like a fourth of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never go to college. I was one of those kids, but I made it to a regional public school thanks to a scholarship.

In Hurd’s story, my familiarity with things Catholic came in very handy; her dissertation research into a Catholic nun turned education advocate a century ago sparked Hurd’s own interest in this work.

The opportunity to write her story was another gift, and I hope it prompts people to reach out to her and the students she serves.

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