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. Founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson, UVA is considered by many to be the quintessential university campus. Yet like many of its peer institutions, the University depended on the labor and work of enslaved African American men, women and children. 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.
As visitors to the Memorial will experience, its 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 its circular form that references both the “Ring Shout,” a dance practiced by enslaved African Americans that celebrates 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.
Within the Triangle of Grass, the Memorial is oriented tangent to two paths. The first path leads from the Memorial in the direction of the North Star, which for the enslaved led to freedom. The second path aligns with the sunset on March 3rd, which commemorates the day that Union troops emancipated the local enslaved community at the close of the Civil War. The communities of Charlottesville and the University will observe this important event through the newly instituted Liberation and Freedom Day on March 3rd through the city. Also sharing the same north/west orientation is the Memorial’s grove of gingko trees that harkens back to the area’s previous use as a productive landscape of fruits and vegetables tended to by enslaved laborers. The trees also evoke the spaces of “hush harbors” that were clearings in the forest where enslaved African Americans convened for religious rituals and communal gatherings and to arrange escape. In the early spring the Memorial’s central gathering space will bloom with blue snow drops, symbolically marking Liberation and Freedom Day.
The Memorial encourages multiple visitor experiences. As people walk along the memorial’s path the interior granite wall rises to a height of eight feet. This wall will bear the inscriptions of the known and unknown names of the estimated 5,000 persons who worked on grounds; current research has uncovered at least 1,000 (mostly first) names of enslaved persons. Running parallel to the wall of names, a smaller ring of granite incorporates a bench for individuals to rest and reflect. The smaller ring also hosts a water table with a timeline of the history of slavery at UVA etched into the stone. For peoples of African descent, water was used for libations in religious ceremonies and waterways served as routes to freedom for the enslaved. At the Memorial’s center, a circle of grass creates a welcoming gathering space for commemorative ceremonies, for use as an outdoor classroom, or as a larger community forum for performances that mine the rich African American history of song and voice. The Memorial will be a central element of an ongoing educational and commemorative effort to honor the lives of enslaved men, women and children who lived and labored at the University.
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.