Ring of freedom: UVA acknowledges its past with slave memorial

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The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers will be highly visible on Grounds and from the Corner, but inside, provides a contemplative public space.
Höweler + Yoon The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers will be highly visible on Grounds and from the Corner, but inside, provides a contemplative public space. Höweler + Yoon

At the same time Charlottesville has faced controversy over its decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the University of Virginia has approved a memorial—with nary a peep of protest—to the enslaved workers who built and maintained the school.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental,” says Frank Dukes, a member of the design team, co-founder of University and Community Action for Racial Equity and past director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation in the School of Architecture. He notes that the UVA plan has been in the works since around 2008. “It’s the same impetus. So much of our history has been mistold or ignored.”

Adds Dukes, “It’s part of the zeitgeist, but it is separate.”

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers got its start from students in UCARE, following resolutions from the General Assembly and Board of Visitors expressing regret for slavery in 2007.

A bombshell rocked the university community in 2006, when an undergrad discovered there were slaves at UVA besides those who built the university.

“The narrative here was that Jefferson didn’t allow slaves,” says Dukes. “He wanted to prohibit students from bringing their ‘servants.’”

Even as an undergrad at UVA in the ’70s, Dukes says the fact that slave labor kept the university running “was never mentioned.” Another faculty member concurred, he says. “We heard there were no slaves here.”

In 2013, President Teresa Sullivan appointed a Commission on Slavery and the University to explore the university’s historical ties to slavery and ways to commemorate the enslaved.

On June 9, the BOV unanimously approved the Freedom Ring, a dual circle that symbolizes a broken shackle designed by Höweler + Yoon. The memorial will occupy an area east of Brooks Hall and across from the Corner.

Constructed of local Virginia Mist granite, its exterior is rough, to represent the hardship the slaves endured, but it’s polished on the inside, and will bear the names of those who labored for Mr. Jefferson’s university—at least those who are known.

So far, researchers have found nearly 1,000 people worked there between 1817 and 1865, but that number could be as many as 5,000. The interior wall will have space to add names as they’re discovered.

Those working on the memorial realized, “you can’t just talk about the degradation,” says Dukes. “They had lives, families, skills. There’s an element of celebration of the lives of these people and the beauty they brought.”

He says, “These are people who couldn’t have dreamed that their descendants could attend the university as students.”

Memorials are often controversial—think the Vietnam War or World War II memorials. Perhaps that’s what’s the most unusual about the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. “Generally we’ve been astonished with how supportive people are,” says Dukes.

Before designs were ever drawn, there was massive input from university students and faculty, as well as the community. Dukes says numerous meetings and hundreds of people weighed in on the monument and the story it should tell. “This was not some artist going somewhere and coming up with an idea,” says Dukes.

The Board of Visitors gave the project the go-ahead a year ago. “The advantage of this taking a long time is that people have gotten slowly used to this idea, and then enthusiastic about it,” he says.

He was surprised the BOV unanimously approved the design in June without wanting to tinker and consider it over the summer.

Nor were there any complaints about putting the memorial on prime, highly visible real estate across from the Corner. The administration said it could go anywhere, says Dukes, and he imagined it might be off the Lawn. “Community members said, ‘Don’t put it there. We don’t go there,’” he recounts.

“Definitely it’s about time,” says UVA religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt. “I’m so glad UVA is facing up to its past.”

While Schmidt admires the “cool” design of the memorial, she says, “We wish UVA would connect its past to the present. A lot of workers who are descendants of slaves are not making a living wage. Further steps are needed.”

Fundraising has begun for the $6 million Freedom Ring, with its flowing water and circular bench creating a space for reflection, and the university would like if finished by the time it celebrates its bicentennial in 2019.

Said Sullivan to the BOV, “Our decision to create a memorial to enslaved workers is an expression of our shared commitment to tell the full story of the university’s past, as we look toward its future.”

Updated July 6 to include the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

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