As School Year Begins, UVA Unveils Memorial to Enslaved People Who Served the University
When UVA students return to campus this week, they’ll find something new – a circular stone monument, eight feet tall and 80 feet in diameter – designed and built to honor the enslaved people who built the university.
For more than a decade, students and community members had been pressing for a suitable memorial to about 4,000 enslaved African-Americans.
“They were central to the construction and maintenance of the university for 50 years,” says Kirt von Daacke, a professor of history and American studies at UVA and co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. These people, he says, did all manner of jobs, from ditch-digging, cooking and cleaning to work that required tremendous skill.
“Building the roofing systems along the lawn, carving the very first steps for the Rotunda to managing classrooms. We know an enslaved man ran the chemical laboratory in the Rotunda.”
Monument builders carved his name and that of more than 550 enslaved workers uncovered through extensive research -- people like Willis.
“He was rented to the university, and he ran away – back to Louisa County where he was from, and the university had an overseer – just as a plantation would, and they sent the overseer to track him down," von Daacke explains. "He was captured in Louisa and jailed for about two weeks before he was returned to the university.”
In cases where nothing is known about an enslaved worker, the builders simply carved a line or memory mark in granite, and others are remembered only by their first name or the jobs they did: laundress, blacksmith, joyner, sawyer, stableman, gardener and so forth.
DeTeasa Gathers, a member of the community outreach committee that advised monument designers, believes her great, great grandmother Peggy is there. Born in 1846, she was photographed by Rufus Holsinger, a local man who documented Charlottesville’s Black community over decades.
“I actually found images of grandma Peggy in the Holsinger collection," she says. " It was displayed around the outside of the memorial while the memorial was being built.”
Gathers says getting involved with the memorial has given her a new understanding of history.
“I lived in this area all my life, and honestly history was something that was very removed from me,'" she recalls. "I passed with my A’s and B’s in school, but I didn’t get it.”
The monument, which sits near the Rotunda in a triangular patch of green grass and old trees, is filled with symbols and perhaps signs. Each time it rains, for example, some people claim the ancestors are crying.
“After a rain, because of the cant of the wall and the gash of the memory mark, the memory marks retain water, while the surface of the wall dries," say University Architect Alice Raucher. "It’s almost as if the names and the memory marks are weeping.”
And von Daacke says the location of the monument ties perfectly with the path of the sun on one sacred day in African-American history.
“It’s along a path that the sun charts through the sky on March third, so it rises to the east at one end of the sidewalk, sets at the other end, and this is that date when Union troops occupied Charlottesville, and 14,000 enslaved people in Albemarle County – including those at UVA – saw this as the moment of liberation.”
Von Daacke says the university will continue to work with Charlottesville’s African-American community in planning events around this memorial and to get their guidance as UVA tries to at last tell the truth about the role played by enslaved people at Thomas Jefferson’s university.
***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.