Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

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2017–2020, Höweler+Yoon with Mabel O. Wilson; Gregg Bleam, landscape architect; Eto Otitigbe, artist. W. University Ave. at 1600 block.

The concept for this memorial to enslaved laborers began in 2010 as a student-led effort to recognize and honor the estimated 4,000 or more enslaved people who lived and worked at the University of Virginia between 1817 and 1865, helping to construct and maintain its original buildings. In 2013, University President Teresa Sullivan formed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which decided to locate the memorial on a grass triangle known as “the Corner,” which, for many years, served as an important entrance to the University. It is bounded on the north by University Avenue, the major road connecting campus to downtown Charlottesville; on the south by the “Long Walk,” the historic pedestrian entrance to the grounds that runs to the Rotunda; and to the west by Brooks Hall, a Victorian Gothic academic building adjacent to UVA’s historic core. Funding for the memorial came from the Board of Visitors of the University and the Office of the President.

The University selected Boston-based architectural firm Höweler+Yoon and landscape architect Gregg Bleam of Charlottesville to design the memorial in collaboration with New York City–based architect and historian Mabel O. Wilson and Brooklyn-based artist Eto Otitigbe, who created the imagery on the memorial’s exterior surface. In consultation with the Commission, the Office of the Architect for the University, and other advisors, the designers conceptualized the memorial as a large circular form. The outer and inner circles deliberately evoke the shape of the Rotunda (both are 80 feet in diameter), as well as the broken shackles of the enslaved. A water scrim represents the path to freedom. At the center of the memorial is a round lawn encircled by a ring of granite that incorporates bench seating. This inner ring also features a water table with a timeline of the University’s history of slavery etched into the stone. The memorial’s dark and veined granite is a locally quarried type called Virginia Mist, the same granite used on the upper terraces of the Rotunda. Otitigbe’s engravings on the exterior wall represent the eyes of Isabella Gibbons, a former enslaved woman who became a teacher after Emancipation. This wall rises to a height of eight feet, and the interior face of the wall bears space for the known and unknown names of the enslaved. Current research has uncovered nearly 1,000 of these (mostly first names), which are inscribed on the polished stone.

The memorial’s official dedication was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, but it was opened to the public in the spring of that year. Intended as a place of contemplation and gathering, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers served as both in the summer of 2020 when Virginians outraged by the murder of George Floyd knelt silently for nine minutes inside and outside the granite rings.

References

“Memorial to the Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia.” University of Virginia. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://www2.virginia.edu/slaverymemorial/.

Suchak, Sanjay. “The Bigger Picture: Honoring George Floyd at UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.” UVA Today (University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA), June 5, 2020.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson

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