Niya Bates: Public Historian

Niya Bates
  • Class of: Col ’12, Arch ’15
  • Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
  • Current city: Charlottesville, VA
  • Current job: Public historian and Director of African American History and the Getting Word Oral History Project at Monticello
  • Bodo’s Order: Tofu on everything bagel and a plain bagel with strawberry cream cheese.

Tell us about your current life (family, home, job)

I live in Charlottesville and work at Monticello. I live in the Belmont neighborhood with my dog, an 18-month-old pit-lab mix named Pauli. At Monticello, I collect oral histories from direct descendants of the people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and other slaveholders there. I’ve been there for almost four years and truly enjoy getting to help my colleagues shape the narrative about the enslaved African Americans who lived and labored at Monticello.

In my spare time, I work to document African American historic sites by getting them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To date, I’ve worked with three communities to get their Rosenwald schools on the state and national historic site registers.

Tell us your UVA story.

I was born and raised in Charlottesville and have always been a UVA sports fan. In high school, I visited friends who lived near Grounds to hang out with the college kids. But, I always thought I would leave town for college. I applied to schools across the state and was accepted to all of them, but Dean Valerie Gregory in UVA Admission worked with me to get a scholarship to cover tuition. Thanks to her, I officially became a Wahoo. Several other people from my high school graduating class (MHS 08!) attended UVA as well.

I joined a lot of different organizations while I was on Grounds. My second year, I joined the Kappa Rho chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. I also volunteered through Madison House, participated in Alternative Spring Break in Trinidad in spring 2011, and worked at North Grounds gym at the front desk. I spent a semester interning with Virginia Sports Properties where I got to work the VIP tailgate for football games and shoot out t-shirts during the basketball games.

Some of my deepest connections came from activities like hanging out at the “Black bus stop”  or eating dinner or brunch in O-Hill with my friends.  Nothing compares to the parties, talent competitions and game nights people used to host in the old Tuttle Lounge. 

What’s your favorite UVA memory?

Picking a favorite memory that doesn’t get anyone in trouble is tough! One of my favorite memories is Final Exercises. The Class of 2012 was one of the last classes to walk the Lawn before the restoration of the Rotunda and I remember planning out where we would meet up with our friends ahead of time. My roommate and I walked to the ceremony from our apartment in University Heights on Ivy and along the way we picked up more and more friends. I don’t have words to describe how it felt to celebrate those final moments as an undergrad with my roommate of three years and friends with whom we had cried, laughed, studied, worked, and partied during those four years. The feeling of climbing the stairs and coming around the Rotunda to the crowd of family and friends there to celebrate our accomplishments remains one of the most joyful moments in my life. We took so many photos with our caps, gowns, stoles and regalia.

What was your journey after leaving UVA?

I liked UVA enough to get my second degree there in 2015 from the School of Architecture.  I studied the landscapes of slavery in the Academical Village, which meant behind-the-scenes tours of the Rotunda restoration and studying the pavilions and gardens in ways I hadn’t as an undergrad. Those courses have directly shaped my career as both a historic preservationist and public historian.

What’s something you learned at UVA that you apply to your life now?

After graduating, interned at Monticello in the restoration department with historic preservation architect Jobie Hill and restoration director Gardiner Hallock. That summer, we traveled around the state of VA taking photographs and measured drawings of extant slave quarters and work spaces throughout the state of Virginia. Not only did that summer teach me a lot about correcting the narrative about African American builders, but it also profoundly shaped the work that I would ultimately be hired to do at Monticello. I learned to look at the physical environment and its history and ask where I could and could not see myself and my ancestors.

What makes you say Wahoowa?

Winning the NCAA Basketball tournament makes me say WAHOOWA! But seeing my fellow Wahoos go out into the world and fix the things that are broken and help where they can is what it means to be a Wahoo.

When you think of “UVA Alumni,” what comes to mind?

I think of some of the most influential people I know. It’s the author who illustrates and writes children’s books highlighting historical African American heroes. It’s the social entrepreneur changing the culture in major cities in VA and throughout the U.S. It’s the Black alumni setting a precedent for reunions at other colleges and universities. When I think of UVA alumni, I think of people pushing to change the world.

How do you stay connected with UVA and other alumni?

I’m a lifetime member of the Alumni Association and I participate in Black Alumni Weekend. I also participated in YAR and Reunions weekend as a volunteer and attendee.

Black Alumni Weekend is hands down my favorite alumni program, and the networking in the Black UVA alumni community is some of the best there is. Without the UVA alumni community, I would not be where I am today.

Tell us the biggest way in which you hope alumni can help impact UVA.

I hope to see deeper connections between alumni and students. I found my first two jobs out of college through the alumni network; it’s a valuable way to show students what their degrees can do. I hope alumni can help facilitate higher job placement for UVA grads through the robust global networks that we have created.