Memorial to Enslaved Laborers: An Evening of Conversation and Community

BY Angeline Dimambro, October 16, 2020

A group of speakers involved in the creation of The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia gathered this month for a conversation exploring the history, form, and process behind the creation of the powerful new memorial. The speakers included Gregg Bleam, E. Franklin Dukes, Eric Höweler, Eto Otitigbe, Diane Brown Townes, Professor Mabel O. Wilson, J. Meejin Yoon, and Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. Wilson is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, as well as Professor in African American and African Diasporic Studies. She is the Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University, one of the co-sponsors of this event, and a member of the architectural team whose design is behind the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Griffin, who moderated the conversation, is the William B. Ransford Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African-American Studies as well as the Chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia. She has published widely on issues of race and gender, feminism, jazz, and cultural politics.


The new memorial sits on the grounds of the University of Virginia. The grounds—designed by Thomas Jefferson and now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—were built and maintained by 4,000 enslaved men, women, and children. The memorial features marks and the names of these individuals carved into granite.


Introducing the event, Griffin commented on the memorial’s importance in this moment of time: “This very heated moment, where discussions of monuments have come to the fore, give us the opportunity to think about the question of what we choose to memorialize.” Griffin also shared a quotation from Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation, which she found especially prescient: “How do we say who we are? How do we teach our history in public places?” These questions were clearly in the minds of the team behind the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as they embarked upon this project of placemaking.


“To tell the story of the United States requires reckoning with hard truths with those histories that have been silenced in the nation’s archives and the public spaces of our shared landscape,” Wilson said. The memorial is a project dealing with such a reckoning. As Wilson noted, there is no mention of slavery on the historical marker on University Ave. on the UVA campus. “Silenced were the voices and contributions of the enslaved people who built many of our hallowed structures—built the entire country for that matter—which demonstrates how white supremacy is still embedded into many of our systems, including our built environment,” said Wilson. 


As Dukes noted, UVA’s history with slavery was not officially acknowledged until 2007. The “expression of regret” did not include any language of apology out of concern that it would imply liability and a need for repair or reparations. A small plaque of recognition was installed in one of the campus’s walkways, but it notably gave equal weight to the lives of the enslaved and the free white workers, reading “In honor of 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.” The plaque sparked outrage from UVA students that would become the “base momentum to build a memorial,” said Dukes. It also propelled the creation of UCARE, University and Community Action for Racial Equity, at UVA, which sought to share and tell this hidden history. This was to be followed by the work of MEL, the student group Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which was founded in 2010 by UVA alumna Ishraga Eltahir, who had previously served as a UCARE intern. MEL began the process of conversation with UVA students, faculty, staff, and Charlotsville community members on the need for a new memorial.


The memorial honors the enslaved workers, the “many young boys, who did the backbreaking labor of digging the clay, filling the molds, and firing the bricks for the estimated 1.2 million bricks for the [university’s] rotunda,” Wilson said. “The fingerprints in the bricks...have stories to tell. Our challenge was to make material speak and to develop methods to thoughtfully remember this community of family, friends, and fellow workers—to revive their humanity while never forgetting the dehumanizing violence of enslavement.” 


The project was necessarily collaborative, the team behind the memorial spending significant time speaking with different groups within the Charlottesville community, asking them what this memorial should mean. Townes is one such community member, and she shared her reflections on growing up in Charlottesville with the audience, noting how landmarks like UVA’s campus inform the way we learn and play as children, shaping us. Yoon shared that through these conversations, it became clear that the memorial not only needed to tell the ungarnished truth of UVA’s violent past, but to also honor the humanity of those who were enslaved. One of the memorial’s defining features, for instance, are the thousands of “memory marks,” which Yoon said invite visitors to touch and explore. Because of their shape, the marks collect water when it rains, and eventually spill over, making it appear as if the memorial itself is crying. The memorial also needed to have an active presence in the present; it needed to be a place for the larger community to gather, learn, and reflect. 


In addition to these important community conversations, the team also embarked on research of Black traditions and spaces of gathering. Wilson shared how the architectural team sought to translate the cultural traditions into elements of their design, including Ring Shouts, Hush Harbors, and water, which “became a means to tell the story of liberation,” whether in the West African libation rituals or the currents that carried so many to freedom. A thorough dissection of how these elements were created, as well as the fabrication process itself, was detailed by Yoon and Otitigbe during the presentation.


Among the memorial’s features is an 1867 quote by Isabella Gibbons, the only member of UVA’s enslaved community to date that archivists were able to recover a full name, date of death, photograph, and brief written record. After liberation, Gibbons became a teacher and founder of the Freedmen’s School in Charlottesville. A witness for her community, her words are carved into the memorial:  “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? Have we forgotten that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.” 


The event was among those highlighted in the School of the Arts Season of Repair for the 2020-2021 Public Programs and Engagement series. The event is available for viewing on the Columbia GSAPP YouTube page, and further images of the memorial can be found on their Instagram


This event was Co-presented by Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Columbia University School of the Arts; Committee on Global Thought; Cornell AAP | Architecture, Art, Planning; the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies; the Institute for Research in African-American Studies; the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; The Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Queens Museum