A Student Beats A Slave (1856)
    by Catherine A. Creighton, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History Degree)


The regular faculty of the University of Virginia met on Friday, May 2, 1856 to discuss a disciplinary infraction committed by a student. All members of the faculty except Professor Albert T. Bledsoe were present. The student in question, Mr. Noble Beveridge Noland of Fauquier County, Virginia, had been discussed at their meetings before, most recently for being absent three times in his mathematics course. This time, Noland was discussed in the context of a recent report that he violated both the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the University by inappropriately chastising a servant who did not belong to him.


Faculty Chairman, Socrates Maupin, began the meeting by relaying the details of the report to the assembled faculty members. The report described events that occurred three days prior, on April 29, 1856. On that day, Noland, a boarder at Miss Terrell’s boardinghouse encountered “a servant girl about 10 or 11 years of age” as she made her way to a dormitory “in pursuit of a pigeon.” In the course of this encounter, Noland asked the girl who “sent her there” to which she allegedly replied, “I sent myself.” Apparently unsatisfied with this response, Noland threatened aloud to “whip” the girl and she replied, “no you wont.”


This “impertinent language” provoked Mr. Noland to approach Miss Terrell. The two discussed the incident and Noland “announced at the same time his purpose to chastise the girl for it.” Miss Terrell “earnestly requested him not to do so” and “assured him that she would see the girl corrected herself.” In an effort to dissuade Noland from ignoring her request, she explained, “the girl’s mistress was then in the house sick” and any “agitation occasioned by any act of violence by Mr. Noland” would likely cause the ailing mistress “great injury.” Unmoved by Terrell’s request, Noland left the conversation reiterating his intent to punish the servant himself.


Later in the afternoon while the Terrell family ate dinner, Noland returned to the boardinghouse and summoned the servant to the back door. When she arrived, Noland knocked her down, kicked, and beat her “so severely” that “for a time” she was rendered “insensible” and “require[d] the attendance of a Physician afterwards.” Witnesses recounted that Noland inflicted such pain upon the servant that “the screams of the child and the confusion which followed…greatly disturbed the peace and tranquility” of the boardinghouse.


As a result of this report, Noland was summoned to appear before the Faculty. At this appearance Noland largely conceded the facts of Mr. Maupin’s report, contesting only that the servant’s initial reply to him was “what?” Noland expressed regret “that he acted so hastily & that he punished the negro as much as he did” as well as for causing “disturbance and discourtesy” to the ladies at the Terrell boardinghouse. However, Noland refused to admit that he should not have punished the servant at all. Instead Noland stated, “whenever a servant is insolent to him he will take upon himself the right of punishing him without the consent of his master.” Although Noland admitted that he lacked “the legal right” to punish other people’s servants, he claimed the “liberty” to do so anyway rather than “trouble himself to go in search of the master.”


Members of the faculty alternated asking Mr. Noland additional questions to further understand his motivations and detect any evidence of contrition for his actions. Although Noland answered their questions, he repeatedly refused to promise that he would restrain himself from whipping another person’s servant should a similar situation arise in the future. The faculty’s final question for Noland referenced a University policy in which students signed “the laws of the University” and asked Noland whether he knew that those laws forbade punishing the servants belonging to others, and if he would sign those laws now that he knew this information. Noland replied that he “probably would.”


At the conclusion of Mr. Noland’s appearance, the faculty unanimously adopted a preamble and resolution regarding the offense. The preamble cited that Noland “violated the laws of the land” and “those of the University” and “refused to give such assurances to the Faculty as would give a guaranty (sic) against a repetition of a similar offense.” Because the faculty deemed that Noland’s proclivity to repeat the offense endangered “the peace of Society & good order of the University” they formally resolved that Mr. Noland “be required to withdraw from the University.”


The next day- Saturday, May 3, 1856- the faculty met again. All members were present at this meeting. Dr. James Lawrence Cabell presented a written communication from Mr. N.B. Noland to the rest of the faculty. The communication began with Noland’s acknowledgement that he had “done wrong” and was “willing to express [his] most profound regret.” Noland listed three specific apologies in his letter. The first of these was his regret that his “violence of passion” had disturbed and shown “discourtesy” to the ladies of Miss Terrell’s household. Second, Noland apologized for “inflicting so severe a punishment upon the young servant girl” and blamed his actions on having been “under the influence” of his temper. Noland’s third and final apology briefly expressed remorse that his actions violated “the laws of the land.” However, the bulk of this section of the letter was dedicated to legitimating Noland’s argument that “when done on the spot and under the spur of the provocation” chastising another’s slave “is not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons.” 


Noland went on to argue that “the criminality of an act of this sort” should be judged “by the attendant circumstances than by the abstract question.” To Noland’s way of thinking, the risk of establishing a “precedent” allowing “ any man to be the judge of the amount of punishment due to an offense committed against himself” would be kept in check so long as “the punishment…never exceed[ed] that of a moderate flogging.” Noland suggested that if a harsher punishment was needed “it should be referred to the magistrate” or to the owner of the slave. Although Noland intended this letter to serve as an apology, the letter closed with Noland again refusing to “promise that I will never chastise a servant for impertinence any more than I can promise never to resent by a blow an indignity offered to me by an equal.” Nevertheless the close of Noland’s letter implored the faculty to “reconsider” his case and render “a just decision.”


After Dr. Cabell finished reading Noland’s letter, the faculty convened to discuss the matter and compose another resolution. This resolution stated that “in view of the contrition expressed in communication addressed by Mr. Noland to the Faculty” the previous day’s resolution ought to “be rescinded.” In contrast to the prior day’s punishment of suspension, Noland’s apology earned him only the punishment of “admonishment by the Chairman” and permitted him to return to normal student life at the University thereafter. 




University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes. Vol 7.7 (2 May 1856): n.p.



Cite This Entry


Creighton, Catherine A. "A Student Beats a Slave (1856)." JUEL, June 18, 2015. http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/162.


First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified: July 1, 2018


Minutes of the University of Virginia Faculty, Volume VII, 1856