Photos: The Making of UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

Between the Rotunda and the Corner, just east of Brooks Hall, the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers rises smoothly from the grass, its concentric rings honoring nearly 5,000 men and women, names known and unknown, who were enslaved at the University of Virginia. 

One quote engraved on the memorial is from a 1867 letter written by Isabella Gibbons, a cook enslaved by two UVA professors who became a teacher after Emancipation. It reads:

“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.” 

The memorial is a product of years of advocacy and research from students, faculty, staff and community members, as well as the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. UVA and community groups, including descendants of the men and women the memorial honors, gave input and feedback on the design. (Meet some of the community members involved in the memorial.)

The coronavirus pandemic forced postponement of a dedication ceremony planned for April 11. However, the memorial is open to visitors and has recently provided a place of reflection for those wishing to honor George Floyd, an African American man killed by Minneapolis police last month, and served as a site to protest police brutality and racism.

As the country and the University mark Juneteenth on Friday, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, take a look back at how the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers took shape.

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Construction began in early 2019. The design team included the Office of the Architect for the University; Boston architectural firm Höweler+Yoon; Frank Dukes, co-founder of University and Community Action for Racial Equity; UVA alumna, cultural historian and designer Mabel O. Wilson, now a professor of architecture at Columbia University; landscape architect Gregg Bleam, who has taught at UVA and worked around Grounds for more than 30 years; and artist Eto Otitigbe, who designed artwork for the memorial’s exterior wall. General contractor Team Henry Enterprises oversaw construction.
A light dusting of snow on March 8, 2019, highlighted the future shape of the memorial.
A panel, including student Jessica Harris, artist Eto Otitigbe, University Landscape Architect Mary Hughes and Devon Henry, CEO of contractor Team Henry Enterprises, discussed the memorial during the April 2019 Black Alumni Weekend. Community members at UVA and beyond, including representatives on a Community Engagement Committee for the memorial, were involved throughout the design process. Harris, a Charlottesville native and “double Hoo” who earned her master’s degree from the Curry School in May, was a student member of that committee.
This photo also was taken on Black Alumni Weekend, as a visiting alumna ran her hand over memory marks on a sample of the memorial’s wall. The memorial’s innermost ring bears 973 known names or notations, as well as slashing lines, referred to as memory marks, commemorating an estimated 4,000 names yet to be found. In some cases, if researchers could not find an individual’s name, they used other identifying details, such as an occupation or kin relationship.
Superintendent Mike Spence, who led construction for Team Henry Enterprises, watches as the first stone in the circle is lifted into place on Oct. 2, 2019.
DeTeasa and Don Gathers also looked on that day. DeTeasa Gathers, who works in UVA’s Department of Surgery, is a member of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Community Engagement Committee. She has been learning more about her ancestors’ connections to UVA, including her great-great-grandmother, Peggy Ragland Brown Spears, whose photo is housed in the Holsinger Studio Collection at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and was among those displayed on walls erected around the memorial during its construction.
Here, the memorial’s first stone, engraved with names, is lifted into place. The memorial uses granite from the same source as the Rotunda’s upper terrace.
Cauline Yates, who was born and raised in Charlottesville and traces her ancestry back to the Hemings family of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, signed one of the stones on the interior side after it was lowered into the ground. Yates was involved in the memorial’s design process and is part of the “Getting Word” oral history project that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began 25 years ago. Enslaved laborers from Monticello were known to have worked on building the University.
A worker does fine finishing work on the stones. Each engraved name is drawn from historical documents that have helped researchers uncover the history of slavery on Grounds.
An aerial shot shows the memorial’s progress as of Nov. 11, 2019, when most of the large stones were in place. The outer ring of the memorial was sculpted with the subtle image of the eyes of Isabella Gibbons, a cook enslaved by two UVA professors who became a teacher after Emancipation. UVA’s Gibbons House dormitory was named in honor of her and her husband, William, a minister.
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The memorial was one stop during Freedom and Liberation Day celebrations on March 3, 2020, commemorating the end of slavery in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Here, three actors, dressed in period costume, lead a procession to the memorial, where local clergy presided over a blessing ceremony. This was one of the last public gatherings at the memorial before the coronavirus pandemic forced the University to shift courses and events online in mid-March.
Yates stands on newly sodded grass near the memorial in April, looking at Isabella Gibbons’ eyes etched into the stone.
On June 5, a crowd, including many UVA Health employees, gathered to honor George Floyd and support the “White Coats for Black Lives” movement raising awareness of police brutality, inequality and racism in health care and demonstrating solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The crowd knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the same length of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, killing him. Nationwide protests have kept up for weeks since, expressing outrage at Floyd’s murder and continued police brutality and racism in the U.S.
Taken in June, this photo shows the brightly lit memorial at night.
Ground lights arc through the memorial’s interior path, illuminating the engraved names.
An aerial view highlights the memorial’s concentric circles and a northward path away from the site, symbolizing the path to freedom.

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Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications