University of Virginia memorial honours ‘lives, labour and perseverance’ of enslaved African Americans

University of Virginia memorial honours ‘lives, labour and perseverance’ of enslaved African Americans

A new spatial memorial in the USA honours the ‘lives, labour and perseverance’ of the enslaved African Americans who built and maintained the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers has been unveiled to a design by Boston based architects Höweler + Yoon in collaboration with historian and designer Dr. Mabel O. Wilson (Studio&), Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, community facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes, and artist Eto Otitigbe. 

The piece, which sits on the green grounds of the campus, is dedicated to the some 4,000 enslaved persons, who worked on the Grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865, either owned or rented by the University for this task. Acknowledging both the dehumanising violence involved in this, as well as the enslaved people’s hope, sense of community, resistance and resilience, the memorial ‘creates a vital public place to understand, learn, and remember their contribution to the University,’ explains the institution. 

UVA memorial Höweler + Yoon aerial
Photography: Sanjay Suchak

The design includes a low, round structure, 80ft in diameter, which rises from the ground, almost mirroring the circular form of the University’s iconic Rotunda dome nearby. Made of local Virginia Mist granite, it features concentric rings that wrap around a planted circular meeting ground. A water table presents a timeline honoring the enslaved and a concave wall of memory marks the names of individuals in the community. There is also a textured convex sloping stone inscribed with a portrait of Isabella Gibbons, an enslaved domestic worker at UVA, who later became a teacher in Charlottesville – this piece is by Otitigbe.

‘The Memorial is not just about memory,’ says Meejin Yoon, co-founder of Höweler + Yoon. ‘It is about the present, and the work that we all need to be engaged in today. The Memorial is about actively bringing people together. It is about opening up dialogue, between visitors and individuals, but also between the University and the community. It is rebuilding a relationship and rebuilding trust. These are the necessary steps in the contemporary conversations about race and repair.’ §

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