Elijah. Julia. Sam. I took in every name, and let each resonate within me, as I quietly examined the granite slabs. I saw the name of my brother, then I saw it several more times. If he had been born just over 150 years ago, he could have been enslaved at the University of Virginia, alongside the rest of our family.
But what struck me even more were the unnamed. Of the 4,000 deep gashes inscribed into the memorial walls—each representing a person enslaved at the university—only 578 have names resting above them. Because they were viewed as property, and treated as such, the identities of more than 3,000 men, women, and children remain lost to history, and may never be discovered.
With its compelling symbolism and innovative design, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers urges its visitors to confront these cruel realities of slavery, and honor the countless contributions enslaved people made to UVA, left unacknowledged for nearly two centuries. It is a site for learning, mourning, and remembering, as the university works to heal from its violent past.
As recent protests against systemic racism held at the memorial show, it also serves as a call for change. The painful effects of slavery can still be felt and seen around UVA today, and the school has a long way to go to achieve racial equity. But for many, paying respect to the Black people who built the university is the first step in the right direction, and offers a glimpse of a better future.
Long time coming
In 1619, the White Lion landed in Point Comfort, Virginia. The “20 and odd” Angolans aboard the ship were sold to Governor Sir George Yeardley, and brought to Jamestown—becoming the first enslaved Africans in England’s colonies in the Americas.
Nearly 400 years later, in 2007, the Virginia General Assembly issued an apology for the state’s role in the institution of slavery. UVA’s Board of Visitors followed suit two months later, expressing “profound regret” for the university’s use of enslaved people.
Earlier that year, the board also voted to place a small gray stone marker in the ground near the Rotunda, honoring the “several hundred women and men, both free and enslaved, whose labor between 1817 and 1826 helped to realize Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia.”
“Most people step over it all of the time,” says Marcus Martin, MD, former vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at UVA. The low stone “falls short in that it’s not very visible, and only talks about the period of 1817 to 1826. …Slavery didn’t end until 1865, and there were more than several hundred free and enslaved men and women [who] helped erect the university and maintain it.”
“The university, at that point, didn’t have the tradition of telling the full story about its history. Everything was focused on Jefferson,” says UVA history professor and associate dean Kirt von Daacke. “There was sort of a sense that Jefferson’s hand was in everything—he built it, he designed it. That was a vague myth.”
In 2010, two students—one an intern for University and Community Action for Racial Equity, the other a co-chair of the Student Council Diversity Initiatives Committee—took the controversy surrounding the marker as a chance to raise greater awareness about slavery at UVA, forming a group called Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.
The group organized community discussions on the creation of a memorial, among other initiatives. And the following year, it held a design competition.
“There were some neat concepts, but they were not of the quality to withstand the environment and test of time, [and] to be approved and erected on Grounds,” says Martin.
Accompanied by his assistant Meghan Faulkner and IDEA Fund chair Tierney Fairchild, as well as student leaders, Martin met with then-president Teresa Sullivan’s cabinet in 2013, proposing the university create a commission entirely dedicated to studying the university’s history of slavery, and recommending ways to commemorate the contributions of enslaved people—including a memorial.
The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University was soon born, with Martin and von Daacke as co-chairs, and a range of professors, faculty, and community historians as members.
According to von Daacke, it was not easy getting everyone on the Board of Visitors to agree to build the memorial “sooner rather than later.”
“When you start with projects like this, running counter to how you’ve done things before, there’s often a sort of fear-based perspective about it. That if we do this, it will bring protests. …That it’s talking about an unpleasant reality of the university’s past, and will be bad for the university, ” he explains.
“Our job [as the PCSU] was to convince everybody that no that’s not true. …Embracing difficult history is beneficial to us in a multitude of ways,” he says. “That takes some time. You have to do the research and public talks, where everyone gets used to hearing these stories, and you have to talk to people one-on-one. [But] protests aren’t going to come unless you do nothing.”
In 2016, after years of lobbying, the BOV finally commissioned the memorial, and put together a design team: architecture firm Höweler + Yoon; alumna and architectural historian Dr. Mabel O. Wilson; landscape architect and professor Gregg Bleam; polymedia Nigerian-American artist Eto Otitigbe, and community facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes, co-founder of University and Community Action for Racial Equity and past director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the UVA School of Architecture.
The design team immediately sought input from the community, sending out surveys and hosting public forums for students, staff, faculty, alumni, local residents, and descendants of the enslaved both inside and outside of Charlottesville, with the support of the PCSU.
After about a year of construction, the project was completed this April. Though its dedication ceremony had to be rescheduled for next April—during Black Alumni Weekend—due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the memorial is now open, “demanding you pay attention and interact with it,” says von Daacke.
The memorial “is really a reflection of the community in Charlottesville,” says Otitigbe, who is based in Brooklyn, New York. “[We] had a lot of interesting conversations with different community members and descendants…I am really thankful they all welcomed me and allowed me to do this, because I was essentially working with, in some way, the remains of their ancestors.”
Stone and symbols
The memorial’s stone was quarried nearby—it’s a variety of granite called Virginia Mist. The name fits: The memorial’s designers hope this stone can provide a physical representation of a murky and poorly documented past.
“One of the first things we heard [from the community] was you can’t build a memorial that is meant to humanize the enslaved without picturing humanity in some way,” says von Daacke “This was sometimes interpreted as a call for a figurative sculpture of an enslaved person,” like Isabella Gibbons, who was enslaved at UVA and became an educator in Charlottesville after emancipation, he explains.
“But of course at UVA, we can’t do that. We have no images of enslaved people at UVA. We have post-emancipation photos, [which are] probably not good images to use to capture what life was like in slavery,” he adds. “Or there are pictures of people who continued to work for the university during Jim Crow, and were treated by white Charlottesville and UVA as the faithful slave. Their picture and story were told by [whites], and is not reflective of who these people were.”
Instead, architectural historian Wilson proposed a more abstract, circular structure for the memorial, symbolizing the broken chains of slavery. It’s also a nod to the ring shout, a dance rooted in West African traditions celebrating spiritual liberation practiced by enslaved people, during which they clapped, prayed aloud, sang hymns, and shuffled their feet in a counterclockwise direction. The ring is 80 feet in diameter—the same as the Rotunda.
“It’s nice that [the memorial is] visible from town and not within the enclosure of the university, on the Lawn or on Grounds, where these people were forced to work,” says Jalane Schmidt, a UVA religious studies professor and community activist. “They had complete lives. They did not define themselves solely as laborers. …They were members of a community.”
The design team says the horizontal slashes that are spread across the interior wall of the memorial’s larger ring are reminiscent of scars from brutal whippings that once covered the enslaved peoples’ bodies. After years of examining historical records, researchers were able to find the names of 578 people enslaved at the university to add to the wall above the memory marks, along with 311 people known by their occupation or kinship relation. However, the rest of the marks remain nameless, laying bare the violent dehumanization of slavery.
This wall “extends the narrative about who this African American community is…[and] allows us to have distinct conversations about what their service looked like,” says Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and a member of the PCSU. “It really gives a better agency to people who were at some point largely dismissed.”
Every inch of the memorial was designed purposefully, and every detail is symbolic.
The eyes of Isabella Gibbons are inscribed on the outside of the wall. Otitigbe used a post-Emancipation photo of her to lightly carve her eyes into the rough-hewn granite, so they are only clearly discernible in early morning or late day.
“Her eyes are looking out to the community, and that can represent many things,” says Dukes. “To me, it’s asking ‘What are you doing? We’re here—what are you doing about it?’”
A second, smaller ring inside the larger circle contains a shallow water fixture, symbolizing the rivers used as pathways to freedom, as well as African libation rituals, baptismal ceremonies, and the Middle Passage. Once the fixture is turned on, water will flow over a historical timeline etched into the ring detailing the everyday experiences of enslaved people at UVA, beginning with the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia in 1619 and concluding with Gibbons’ death in 1889.
Stepping stones adjacent to the memorial point to the North Star, which led enslaved people to freedom. And the brick walkway visitors use to enter the memorial will align with sunset on March 3, or Liberation and Freedom Day, when Union troops emancipated enslaved people in Charlottesville at the close of the Civil War.
The smaller ring encircles a fresh cut lawn, a space for gatherings, celebrations, performances, classes, and protests centered around topics of racial justice.
An excerpt of one of Gibbon’s writings from 1867 appears at end of the timeline: “Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? … No, we have not, or ever will.”
Douglas arrived at UVA as a graduate student in the ’90s. Confederate flags flapped from fraternity house windows, and students regularly popped up at parties wearing blackface. (Those things still happen, but with a little less frequency.)
“White supremacy was very much inculcated into the culture of the school,” she says. “Going to a university with that much blatant anti-Black racism, to have this [memorial] as prominent as it is [and] know there is a movement towards a kind of respect for the community the university sits in…It feels much different from when I got here.”
For activist Don Gathers, seeing the names—or lack of names—on the memorial for the first time was “incredibly powerful,” bringing him to tears, he says.
“To stand there and take it all in—it speaks volumes to you. You realize the struggle and sacrifice that those individuals made, and were forced to make, to bring us to the point we are now.”
Though the memorial is effective, Gathers believes the location could have been better chosen.
“Where it is, it still has the semblance of…the Rotunda and Jefferson himself looking down upon the enslaved,” he says.
“Community members told us that they don’t go on Grounds,” explains Dukes. “We don’t feel welcome. So if you build it on the Grounds…we’re not going to come. It’s not going to be for us.”
Third-year Black student activist Sarandon Elliott believes the location of the memorial makes it much more visible, especially to students.
“When people walk towards UVA, they’re going to have to see that. And I also like that it’s near the Corner, a really busy area. People walking past it can stop and reflect upon it,” says Elliott, president of the school’s Young Democratic Socialists of America.
It remains to be seen if the memorial’s current location—technically off Grounds but still very much amidst the UVA bubble, tucked between the hospital and the Rotunda, just across the street from the student-swarmed Corner—will attract a lot of Charlottesville residents.
Though it’s just about impossible to identify every enslaved person, von Daacke and other researchers continue to search for names, occupations, and kinships to engrave on the monument’s inner wall. (A handful have already been found since it was completed, he says.)
Last year, UVA also began discovering the names of enslaved people through its new descendant outreach project, spearheaded by renowned genealogist Shelley Murphy, which will continue for at least the next two years.
The descendants have formed a leadership group, but are still getting themselves organized, according to UVA employee and descendant DeTeasa Gathers. They plan to conduct educational tours and talks at the memorial, when the pandemic finally comes to an end.
“We consider this very vital, because the history books in Virginia are not inclusive and not very detailed [on] the quandary of slavery,” says Cauline Yates, who is also a descendant. “[Students] are our up-and-coming leaders of the future. We’re trying to make sure that they understand what even happened in their very own backyard.”
“This is not completely about us. This is more about telling the unvarnished truth about what happened going forward,” says DeTeasa Gathers. “We see this memorial as people who were enslaved…but it did last for generations past. It’s important to not forget the generations behind it who have been affected.”
Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, dozens of UVA Health employees gathered at the memorial, kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck.
In addition to raising awareness about police violence against Black people, the group called attention to systemic inequality and racism in the health care system—bringing a crucial purpose of the memorial to fruition.
Now that the memorial is finished, the university needs to answer its call to action, and implement real changes, says Schmidt.
The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers “is the sculptural, African American version of institutions’ spoken indigenous land acknowledgments, both now made with fanfare and solemnity: It’s a nice gesture,” she says. “But absent concrete material actions of repair, it remains just a gesture.”
Martin echoes Schmidt’s calls for sweeping structural change, pointing to the detailed list of recommendations the PCSU made in its final report to Teresa Sullivan in 2018.
For Martin, one of the most crucial issues facing UVA is its small population of Black students. While the state of Virginia is nearly 20 percent Black, only about 7 percent—a little over 1,000—of the university’s undergraduate students are Black.
UVA doesn’t just need to admit more Black students, but figure out how to attract and keep them here, explains Martin. He says the university offers admission to around 1,000 Black students each year, but only 35 percent of them accept.
A solution, he says, would be to offer more scholarships through the Ridley Scholarship Fund, minimizing the student debt for a demographic that statistically already has less wealth. The university could also explore ways to create a need-based scholarship fund for descendants of its enslaved laborers through the fund.
Martin also calls for the creation of more fellowships related to Black studies, so the school can attract more Black faculty—4 percent of the faculty of the state’s flagship university is Black.
Schmidt is all for more scholarships, but she believes UVA needs to include reparations in its admissions practices, like Georgetown University, which, since 2016, has given preferred admissions, or “legacy” status, to the descendants of those enslaved there.
UVA should not just aim to get more Black students, but also make them feel included and valued once they are on Grounds, says Elliott. This includes following up on the range of recommendations issued by the university’s Racial Equity Task Force last month, and removing racist symbols and names—from Alderman Library to the George Rogers Clark statue.
“If we are not actively fighting racial and economic inequity, we are not properly honoring enslaved peoples,” she adds.
After spending an hour or so at the memorial, I left feeling pained. Black people at UVA, in Charlottesville, and across the country have endured so much violence and oppression. The memorial is here, but the violence has yet to cease.
But I also left with a sense of hope. Now more than ever, radical student leaders and activists of color like Elliott are holding the university accountable for its racism—without the initial push from students, it’s likely the memorial wouldn’t exist today. Through their efforts, and the efforts of the next generation, and the next, UVA may someday atone for its troubled past.