The design of the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia didn’t start with images, plans or drawings.

It started with conversations.

“We didn’t go into it with a sense of what it should be, or even where it should be,” cultural historian and designer Mabel Wilson said. “We just started a series of conversations, hearing from students, from community members, faculty and from communities of descendants who are invested in trying to understand their relationships to these places.

“That’s how we started, just listening.”

Wilson, a UVA School of Architecture alumna and a professor of architecture and African American studies at Columbia University in New York City, was part of the memorial’s design team. The team, hired by UVA and its President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, also included Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon, of the Boston-based firm Höweler+Yoon Architecture; Charlottesville landscape architect Gregg Bleam, who previously taught at the Architecture School; Frank Dukes, a Distinguished Institute Fellow at UVA’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation; and Eto Otitigbe, a polymedia artist who creates sculpture and public installations who is also an assistant professor of art at Brooklyn College. They worked diligently with members of the Office of the Architect of the University, led by Architect for the University Alice Raucher and University Landscape Architect Mary Hughes, to shepherd the project to completion. Partnering with UVA Facilities Management, general contractor Team Henry Enterprises oversaw construction, led by superintendent Mike Spence.

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The memorial, which will be dedicated in a virtual ceremony Saturday, is the result of years of advocacy by students, faculty, staff and alumni, including the IDEA Fund, and leadership and research by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, created by UVA President Emerita Teresa A. Sullivan in 2013 and co-chaired by Dr. Marcus Martin, former vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, and history professor Kirt von Daacke. The commission’s 26 members, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and community members, were charged with finding ways to recognize and memorialize the history of slavery and enslaved people on Grounds and began the process of holding public community events and opportunities for comments, continued by the design team. The commission also worked with a national and local advisory board and a community relations task force.

The design we see today began to take shape as the Office of the Architect and the design team spent about five months meeting with community members at UVA and in Charlottesville, including descendants of those enslaved at UVA and Monticello; students, faculty and alumni who advocated for the memorial for years; and members of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, among many others. They also held public meetings at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Jefferson African American Heritage Center to share design ideas and invite feedback.   

“This design team really stood out because they came into the selection process with a detailed plan for community engagement, and for how exactly they would involve the community in the design,” Raucher said, noting that Höweler+Yoon led a similar process for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology memorial honoring campus officer Sean Collier, killed during a confrontation with the Boston Marathon bombers.

Arial view of the Rotunda and the Memorial of Enslaved Laborers
The memorial sits between the Rotunda and University Avenue, within UVA’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Our hopes and expectations were high based on their past work and the extraordinary people on the team,” Raucher said.

As they went along, the team members filled their offices and meeting rooms with images and documents from UVA – books, historical photos, letters and documents, drawings, plans, art – and explored other memorials, such as the Vietnam Memorial and Holocaust memorials in Berlin.

“We asked a lot of questions about what constitutes an appropriate memorial and how we think about memorials today,” Höweler said. “The clarifying moment came when Mabel said the memorial is not just about acknowledging the violence, but also creating a space for celebration today, where people can go to remember, but also to celebrate and honor these lives. That was a critical difference for us.” That idea, combining a space for both reckoning and celebration of life, came up again and again in discussions at UVA and with community members.

Person sits on the wall of the Memorial for enslaved laborers
Designers wanted a place for remembrance, but also for gathering – for courses, talks, performances and conversations.

The result is a striking circular stone memorial cut into the sloping lawn between the Rotunda and the Corner, within the boundary of the UNESCO World Heritage Site on Grounds.

The rising wall, constructed of local “Virginia Mist” granite, is inscribed with 577 names of enslaved men and women who lived and worked on Grounds, along with 311 phrases indicating someone’s kindship or occupation, such as “grandmother” or “stonecutter.” Often, records used those notations rather than someone’s name. Von Daacke and members of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University led research efforts to discover those names, studying faculty minutes, chairman’s journals, buildings and grounds records, and faculty and student diaries. Ben Ford, of Rivanna Archaeological Services, also contributed research, going through the Proctor’s records.

Researchers estimate that at least 4,000 more names of those enslaved on Grounds remain unknown, represented on the memorial by 4,000 dark gashes in the stone.

Up close view of names on the memorial of enslaved laborers
The memorial is inscribed with 577 names of enslaved men and women who lived and worked on Grounds, along with 311 phrases indicating someone’s kindship or occupation, such as “grandmother” or “stonecutter.” Dark gashes represent an estimated 4,000 people whose names remain unknown.

The interior ring of the memorial features a historical timeline based on von Daacke’s research. The words stand out – stark, often horrific historical accounts, such as the assault of a young enslaved girl by UVA students in September 1826. The students received only a verbal reprimand, and paid the girl’s owner, a local tavern keeper, a small fine.

Directly behind the timeline is an open circle of grass. Höweler said it references accounts of enslaved men and women gathering in clearings in the woods, in secret, to worship, celebrate or just be together. It is also, he said, a space for the present – for classes to gather, people to sit, study, talk and perform.

“Now that it is completed, the memorial will have to stand on its own within the community, and draw people in,” he said. “I think that’s a powerful moment, when members of the community can come into that space and feel like it is their space to be in.”

Up close view of the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers
A timeline runs along the memorial’s inner ring, informed by quotes, letters and often horrific historical accounts.

Höweler, who for months had a webcam in his office live-streaming the memorial’s construction, said something special happens as you walk deeper into the memorial. The looming stone takes over the horizon line, similar to how the Vietnam Memorial gradually grows higher.

“It feels open at first, but as you drop below eye level, you find yourself enclosed in this more intimate, contemplative space,” with rows and rows of names in front of you, he said.

“These men and women were often robbed of their names – first names, last names, dates of birth or death,” said Wilson, who has worked on design proposals for other memorials and on a book about the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We cannot locate them in time and space, which is what memorials typically do. We know so much about Jefferson – we even know what he ate on July 3, 1803 – but he and all those at UVA were surrounded for over 65 years by a community of more than 4,000 people that we know little about.

Memorial of Enslaved Laborers
Mabel Wilson said the memorial is not a space for forgetting, or thinking that things are “wrapped up and done,” but a space to start conversations.

“That is how the violence of slavery operates, and part of what we needed to determine was how we could dignify, humanize and make those lives present.”

Thanks to research by community historian Gayle Schulman, researchers were able to find out more about one woman, Isabella Gibbons, who was enslaved by a professor and, once emancipated, became a teacher at the Freedman’s School – now the Jefferson School – in Charlottesville. Her husband William Gibbons, formerly enslaved by a different professor, became a minister at Charlottesville’s oldest Black church, First Baptist. Former UVA Ph.D. student Scott Nesbit conducted much of the research now available on William Gibbons.

One of UVA’s residence halls, Gibbons House, was named after the couple in 2015. In Otitigbe’s artwork, Isabella Gibbons’ likeness, taken from a rare contemporary photo, is subtly carved onto the exterior wall of the new memorial. Her image gleams and shifts in the light, catching the eye of passers-by and changing as the sun moves overhead.

Memorial of Enslaved Laborers surrounded by lights
Artist Eto Otitigbe carved Isabella Gibbons’ likeness on the memorial’s exterior; her eyes are visible on the left side of the memorial here.

“I like the idea that someone might be walking by and suddenly be struck by it,” Höweler said.

A quote from Gibbons’ 1867 letter in the Freedman’s Record is carved into the end of the memorial’s timeline.

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, 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 that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.”

It is one of the few surviving accounts of the cruelty of slavery at the University.

“I call her the witness and the watcher,” Wilson said. “This ephemeral presence that is appearing and disappearing, a really powerful orator for her community.”

The design team hopes that the memorial’s details – from Gibbons watchful eyes to the names carefully etched in stone – act as both a reminder and a call to action to the University and the wider community.

“We want this to become a part of Grounds, but also have the power to continually engage so that you don’t just walk by it,” Höweler said. “We do not want this to fade into the background.”

“It is not a site for forgetting, thinking that things are wrapped up and done,” Wilson said. “This is a memorial, but it is also a space to start a conversation.”