This month a new exhibit created by Virginia Foundation for the Humanities will provide a window into the lives led by black residents of Charlottesville and surrounding areas, before Emancipation and during the Jim Crow era.
Developed by the foundation’s “Encyclopedia Virginia” publication, “Landscapes of Slavery and Segregation” takes visitors on an audio-visual tour of some of the areas most impacted by slavery and discrimination in Charlottesville. While walking through the University of Virginia’s Academical Village, the Downtown Mall or the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, visitors can use an app on their smartphones or tablets to guide them and listen to stories relating to each stop. The audio can also be accessed by calling the telephone numbers listed at the Downtown Mall and Jefferson School sites; the phone number also is listed on the exhibit’s brochure for all of the UVA sites.
“We wanted to do something in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 50th anniversary celebration happening this month in Charlottesville, and one of the major themes of that celebration is examining African-American history,” said Matthew Gibson, the director of digital initiatives and editor of “Encyclopedia Virginia.”
“Encyclopedia Virginia” has long been committed to documenting and sharing the history of African-Americans in the commonwealth and was able to work with its partners and draw from its content to build the new tour.
UVA Today got a preview of some of the sites and stories included in “Landscapes of Slavery and Segregation”; the full exhibit will be available through the end of this month.
(Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)
In 2007, a plaque commemorating the work of enslaved and free laborers who helped construct the Rotunda was installed in the passage under the south terrace. This is one of 22 stops throughout UVA’s Grounds where app users can pause and listen to historical accounts.
The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University first created the map of all 22 sites on Grounds as a self-guided walking tour. “Encyclopedia Virginia” collaborated with them to create the audio-visual elements that now accompany each site. In fact, many of the voices visitors will hear are drawn from members of the commission and researchers in the UVA community.
Commission co-chair Dr. Marcus Martin, the University’s vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, narrates several of the stops, including the enslaved labor plaque and McGuffey Cottage.
While the full Virginia Foundation for the Humanities exhibit is only available through September, the commission plans to continue collaborating with “Encyclopedia Virginia” to keep the Academical Village portion of the application running indefinitely.
“We hope to keep this active and continue refining it in future years as new information emerges,” Martin said.
Other narrators include two of Martin’s fellow commission members: Kirt von Daacke, an association dean and associate professor of history; and Deborah McDowell, Alice Griffin Professor of English and director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies.
“When people walk the Grounds, we want them to see this exhibit and our map as an invitation to learn more about the history of slavery here,” von Daacke said. “The first step in reconciliation and repair is acknowledgement, and there’s about 50 years of University history where enslaved people were living and working and helping build the University.”
He narrates the story of the Crackerbox, above, a small building behind Hotel F that served as a detached kitchen and a dwelling place for slaves. It’s one of many examples of buildings where slaves were forced to live in tight quarters while their owners leased them out for various domestic jobs around the University.
In one of her recordings, McDowell addresses the danger of violence that often awaited slaves as they went about these jobs.
“I hope people come away from this exhibit with an expanded view of the experience of slavery here at UVA and the commonwealth more broadly – particularly the former,” McDowell said. “I think it’s so important to have an exhibit that highlights the presence of slavery in the landscape and in the built environment.”
The portions of the exhibit on the Downtown Mall and at the Jefferson School show the impacts of slavery and discrimination on the region at large.
Six large-scale photographs, displayed temporarily across from the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall, depict buildings and landscapes associated with slavery across the state. Each one was taken as a 360-degree spherical photograph.
Inside the app, historians, researchers and archaeologists from all over Virginia offer descriptions and stories about what is depicted in each photograph. Photos show images of the Sanford Burgess Slave Dwelling in Stafford County, James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County and the Bacon’s Castle Slave Dwelling in Surry County.
At Charlottesville’s Jefferson School, visitors jump ahead in time to 1963 and take a look inside the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. An installation inside the school shows photos by Gundars Osvalds of everyday life in the predominately African-American residential and business district that had managed to thrive during the Jim Crow era. Despite its success, the city declared the area “blighted” and demolished the neighborhood in the name of “urban renewal” two years after the photos were taken.
Martin narrates part of this exhibit, along with the Jefferson School’s executive director, Andrea Douglas, and a few former residents of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
Former resident Emma Lewis is shown in the bottom center portrait above. Now a team leader for the UVA Medical Center’s Environmental Services Department, Lewis in her audio recording remembers the strong sense of shared community that permeated Vinegar Hill before it was demolished.
“Landscapes of Slavery and Segregation” is free to access and all sites are open to the public. Readers can experience the full exhibit and listen to all its speakers by logging onto the mobile application here.