New App Offers Virtual Tour of Enslaved African American History at UVA

August 13, 2020 By Anne E. Bromley, Anne E. Bromley,

Who is Robert Battles, and what did he do at the University of Virginia? What is that open metal structure near the South Lawn? How did UVA researchers find the names of enslaved laborers that appear on the new memorial?

A new, free app that provides a virtual, self-guided tour introducing the history of enslaved African Americans at UVA is now available, giving answers to the questions above and much more. Especially with the pandemic limiting travel and access to the University, the app, Walking Tours of Grounds, which can be downloaded via the Apple App Store or Google Play, makes it possible for anyone with a cell phone or tablet to see not only some physical remnants and old documents, but also the most recent ways UVA is showcasing this integral, albeit difficult, part of its history.

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The digital tours are part of an initiative UVA President Jim Ryan announced recently to update and contextualize the University’s historic landscape through a variety of commemorative efforts, including the display of physical markers, portraits and photographs around Grounds.

“This tour app is another important way to help us tell a more complete history of the University,” Ryan said. “I hope that people come away from this tour with a more informed view of the experience of enslaved African Americans at UVA and how inseparable the built environment of the Academical Village is from the presence of slavery.”

This app expands a printed brochure of a self-guided walking tour for visitors that the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University published four years ago, as the renovated Rotunda reopened. Last semester, University Library staff collaborated with history professor and assistant dean Kirt von Daacke; Mary Hughes, UVA landscape architect; and Meghan Faulkner from the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to update and enhance the walking tour.

left: Memorial of Enslaved Laborers at nigh surrounded by lights.  right: view of the wall
President Ryan has described the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as “both a symbol of our past and a beacon for our future.” (Photos by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The completed Memorial to Enslaved Laborers tops the list of contemporary efforts to recognize their part in daily life at the University in its first decades.

The library team, led by Elyse Girard, conducted research, wrote additional content and went through the archives in Special Collections to include rare visual images.

“Access was really at the heart of the creation of this digital tour,” said Girard, executive director of communications and user experience at UVA Library. “It was important to update the tour to include new details and new landmarks like the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, but we wanted to go beyond that and make the digital tour such that everyone could enjoy the tour, whether they are on Grounds, at home or across the world.

“It was a privilege for the library team to work with partners across Grounds and to provide materials from our collections that help illustrate the powerful stories of enslaved individuals.”

The tour app brings together information about people who worked at UVA and significant places – some that are still standing, some that were hidden and then found accidentally, and some that have left little trace, but emerge from documents and drawings.

For instance, Robert Battles was a free man of color who hauled more than 176,000 bricks used in the construction of the Rotunda. Enslaved laborers, including young boys, made those bricks. Of the hundreds of enslaved workers who helped build the University, many were skilled craftsmen in stonecutting, carpentry and blacksmithing. According to the walking tour, Battles owned a nearby 26-acre farm, which John Hartwell Cocke pressured him to sell. “After years of hard negotiation,” he finally sold it in 1825 for $2,000 (which would be the equivalent of about $50,000 today).

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Enslaved and free Black people, including children, supported the operation of daily life, working in the dining rooms of hotels in the Academical Village, doing laundry and sewing for faculty and students.

Only a few outbuildings used by the enslaved workers survive, but app users can see photos as well as plans for buildings that are gone or were never built. One part of Hotel E, Mrs. Gray’s kitchen, was finished in 1830 and probably torn down between 1915 and 1920, but app users can see an architectural drawing with notes and a photo of where it stood. Records show that the kitchen structure was expanded for the lodging of a dozen or more “servants,” as enslaved laborers were euphemistically called. There’s also information from faculty meeting minutes about Mrs. Gray complaining that a student struck a young servant named William, who was then removed from attending to students.

Black and white photo of Thomas Jeffersons statue
App users can find out about Mrs. Gray’s Kitchen behind Hotel E on the West Range, which appears in background of this 1915 Rufus Holsinger photograph of a Jefferson statue. (Courtesy UVA Special Collections)

Also included on the tour is the “shadow catcher” memorial, designed by landscape architects Cheryl Barton and Walter Hood, whose aluminum frame casts shadows that outline the foundation of a long-gone house that had been owned by Catherine “Kitty” Foster. Another worker for UVA students and faculty, Foster was a free Black seamstress who purchased property in 1833 in a predominantly African American neighborhood known as Canada.

“What started out to be an expansion of a parking lot east of Venable Lane in 1993 became an archaeological dig when several grave shafts were discovered,” the entry says. Along with the house’s foundation and evidence of a landscaped yard, a total of 32 graves were identified.

The app also shows relevant documents, such as one with “Licensed Servants,” dating to around 1826, that lists hotelkeepers and the enslaved laborers whose work they rented out. This document was one of many used to find the names for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Users of the app can view beautiful aerial and ground photos with explanatory entries about bringing the memorial to fruition.

close up of engraved names that are on the Memorial of Enslaved Laborers
The app explains how researchers found the names of enslaved laborers that appear on the new memorial. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Situated within the UNESCO World Heritage Site space northeast of the Rotunda, the memorial sits in the midst of what were originally farm fields tilled and managed by enslaved people producing foodstuffs for students and faculty. The memorial’s design and location were deeply informed by a process of community engagement with students, faculty, staff and neighbors in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties.”

Ryan has described the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as “both a symbol of our past and a beacon for our future.”

“As a symbol, the memorial calls on us to bear witness to the lives of enslaved people at the Academical Village and pay homage to their memory,” he said. “And as a beacon, the memorial points us in the direction that our University community aspires to reach, where all people are equally valued, respected and included in their everyday lives on Grounds.” 

Download the app with the digital tour here.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications