Nestled into the sloping landscape of the “Triangle of Grass”, which sits within the UNESCO World Heritage Site boundary of the University of Virginia’s (UVA) grounds, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers seeks to formally acknowledge the work and the individual lives of the enslaved African Americans who built and sustained the every-day life of the University. Constructed of local granite, “Virginia Mist,” the Memorial will create a space to gather, reflect, acknowledge, and honor the enslaved laborers who contributed to the University. Scholars estimate that at least 5,000 enslaved African Americans worked on the grounds, with many in residence, starting with the construction of the Lawn in 1817 and lasting through the end of the Civil War in 1865. The physical form seeks to capture the complex and challenging lives of the enslaved through the duality of this painful chapter of American history: lives oppressed by the violence of bondage but also lives that bear witness to the perseverance of the human spirit. The Memorial captures these dualities in a circular form that references both the “Ring Shout,” a dance practiced by enslaved African Americans that celebrate spiritual liberation, and a broken shackle that signals the end of physical bondage. These dual conditions form two nested rings that break when they meet the ground; this break opens a circle that welcomes gathering.
The project was designed in a collaboration between Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Dr. Mabel O. Wilson (Studio&), Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, and Dr. Frank Dukes. Together, the design team led an extensive community engagement and design process.