Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (MEL) is a space to actively engage with the local history of the University of Virginia in the context of slavery. The open-air memorial is formed by two concentric circles opened to a brick pathway, symbolizing the broken chains and celebratory nature of emancipation. This circle, created by a rising and falling wall of granite, forms a semi-private enclosure for the reflection of the enslaved laborers who built the University. At the entry of the circle, words by a former slave and post-humorous Charlottesville citizen, Isabella Gibbons are etched at the entry:

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, the whipping post, the auction block, the handcuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.”

These words set up the framework of remembrance that the memorial attempts to capture. As the viewer continues into the circle, they’ll notice how the granite wall utilizes the graphics of “memory marks,” etching cuts into the stone (recalling the scars of lashed slaves as well as creating a symbolic scar on the granite much like the scar that slavery left on America) and is accompanied by names, familial roles, and job titles of the nearly 4,000-5,000 enslaved laborers who were at the University from 1817-1865. As the viewers experience the rising wall of names and titles, they are invited to sit and contemplate the lives of the individuals. Many of these marks are left blank, indicating that no record of the names of these individuals have been discovered yet. Seeing the assortment of names, titles, and marks, the viewer is influenced to consider the very individuals who made Jefferson’s vision possible. One can imagine the enslaved African Americans that maintained the university, keeping it alive and functioning: cooks, masonry workers, construction workers, people who chopped wood, carpenters, roofers, transporters, etc. Marks like “mother,” “grandfather,” “son,” etc. work to forge empathetic emotions with the viewer, influencing the active reflection of these people. Furthermore, the environment affects the memorial, changing with the lighting and weather conditions. On a rainy day, watch the water droplet stream down each mark like tears running down a face as the memorial seems to weep for these enslaved laborers. The aforementioned Isabella Gibbons is referenced graphically outside the granite wall when the sun is at the correct orientation, revealing her eyes cut into the stone. To inform the audience, the inside seating circle has etched events of enslaved laborers in relation to the University. In the very center of the circle, there is a patch of grass, inviting the audience to activate the space with events and activities. MEL is not only a memorial honoring the lives of enslaves laborers at UVA, but a space of active and empathetic reflection.


The MEL exhibits a rich body of research and references that contribute to the overall theme of commemoration and reflection through the lens of the enslaved laborers that worked and lived on grounds from 1817-1865. The siting of the memorial in the “triangle of grass” near Jefferson’s Rotunda and Academical Village begins to frame the way enslaved peoples moved about the university. These individuals performed vital functions for the university but were always cast aside from the privileged Lawn. This is further exemplified in the reference to the Serpentine Walls as the height of the granite circle of the memorial matches the height of these walls. The Serpentine Walls on the outside of the Lawn were made to hide slaves from the view of students, faculty, and visitors of the wall. This division allowed students and faculty to enjoy the merits of the lawn without thinking of who maintains and functions it. The material of the memorial is “Virginia Mist,” a local granite. The color strongly contrasts the iconic red brick of Jeffersonian architecture. This contrast in color also seems to parallel the division between the skin color of the enslaved and their white counterparts. The juxtaposition of the dark marble to the red brick seems to remind viewers that the same red brick that they walk on throughout Charlottesville and the University were hand crafted by enslaved laborers.

The open circle form recalls a multiplicity of references: broken chains symbolizing emancipation, “ring shout” dances of liberation, and “hush harbors” where enslaved peoples would secretly gather in woods for religious rituals, to plan escapes/revolts, or just to come together as a community. This circle form is also oriented tangent to a several important directions. One tangent path is that of the North Star that slaves used to escape to freedom. Another tangential orientation is the sunset of March 3rd, the day Union Troops came to the city to emancipate the enslaves laborers. The memorial circle also has a tangent line pointing towards the Northwest toward the gingko trees that laborers would maintain. Within the center of the circle, water will flow, creating a calm atmosphere for contemplative audience members, and also in reference to religious ceremony of the African American community and a reference to the waterways runaway slaves used to guide themselves to safety and freedom.

These references, including the writing by Ms. Gibbons contributes to reveal the previously suppressed narrative of these individuals which built the university and worked to maintain it. By exploring all of these references and narratives, the memorial works to inform and make audiences aware of the local history, allowing visitors to gain perspective and honor the individuals which made UVA, Charlottesville, and in a greater sense, the United States possible.


The University of Virginia was designed by the vision of American “patriot” and founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, a document which preaches the equality of American citizens, created his idyllic Academical Village as an almost template for what an American University should be: a democratic space that values knowledge at its core. And yet, Jefferson’s University supported the homogenous culture of upper-middle class Southern white males, the majority of which would become agricultural plantation leaders. The Memorial for Enslaved Laborers reveals the hypocrisy and two-faced history of the University: one of exclusion, homogeneity, and frankly, undemocratic values. Jefferson designed the lawn as a dynamic and “democratic” space for faculty and students to reside, learn, and grow while at the same time oppressed a whole race of people, forcing them to build, maintain, and function his “utopian” university all while remaining out of sight. MEL reminds us the historical narrative of the University as well. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Board of Visitors expressed regret of utilizing enslaved laborers throughout its history. While MEL invokes all of these thoughts, the main narrative it expresses it that of commemoration and empathy to the individual lives of the enslaved peoples who built our university. By creating an open-air space, the designers have enabled students, faculty, citizens and visitors a space to reflect and remember the dark history of our community. At the same time, the space becomes an active place for community events. In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder, members of the community gathered about the memorial, kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. By opening up the memorial, the space acts as an almost forum to the community for on-going education, dialogues, and activity in relation to racial issues of the University and the Nation at large. While Jefferson may have been hypocritical and two-faced in his ideologies versus his actions, his university now finally has a real democratic space (and its not the lawn).

4_What role does abstraction have in facilitating the design of the new monument and memorial typology?

Abstraction, in relation to monumental spaces, allows for active and on-going dialogue provoked by the themes of the space. While traditional monuments, like that of the Robert E Lee statue in Richmond, demand viewers to accept the dominating narrative that is being portrayed, abstract monuments provoke real action. The Robert E Lee statue forces viewers to see the confederate soldier in a positive and patriotic manner: towering over the puny human figure in strength and height, while at the same time enforcing the racial terror agenda of the dominating Southern white culture. In contrast, abstract memorialization like that of MEL provides many references, orientations, and spatial qualities which require the audience to explore, discovery, and learn about, influencing a deep dive of education into the topic. This abstraction can also evoke questions that continue the on-going dialogue of the topic. Furthermore, like Cotter brings up in a NYTimes article, monuments, like that of Robert E Lee, shout their message with “a full stop”, forcing the audience to accept the way the venerated heroes are perceived and thus don’t facilitate conversations but attempt to cement narratives as objects of propaganda. As the great Zena Howard expressed in an ARCH 3500 lecture, monuments shouldn’t honor people, but the values and ideologies that people express. Humans are problematic. We often offer a multiplicity of valuable things to society, but also encompass many flaws. By venerating human beings and placing them on pedestals, monuments completely overlook the flaws and demand audiences aspire to be like the “heroes” they display without exploring their problematic nature. Abstract monuments have the opportunity to side step the problematic nature of human beings by instead, upholding the values and ideas these “heroes” stand for. While the way we view people may change with time, these abstract memorials don’t. These memorials uphold ideas and allow for ongoing dialogue and education for the betterment of communities and society. Contrastingly, the traditional monuments often create narratives of division which provoke people to argue, fight, and become violent over their existence instead of talking about the real issues at hand.