‘To Them We Owe Our Deepest Gratitude’: UVA Dedicates Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

‘To Them We Owe Our Deepest Gratitude’: UVA Dedicates Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

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The virtual dedication ceremony of the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers today brought together many of the people who strived to create the monument that honors the lives of those who built and sustained the early University – and whose work had been hidden or forgotten over many years.

Alumni and UVA leaders recalled the efforts that members of the University community undertook more than 10 years ago to situate a memorial on Grounds, within the boundary of the UNESCO World Heritage site, “to be a space of reflection and healing, a space of truth-telling,” as alumna Jessica Harris said in her introduction.

Although the memorial was completed early in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the plans for a dedication event last year that would have brought people together in person. Many of the participants in Saturday’s ceremony took turns, one by one, to stand at a lectern placed in the center of the memorial’s inner circle to talk about how they came to understand the significance of reckoning with the untold narratives of the University’s history. Members of Chihamba, a Charlottesville-based African dance troupe, also visited the site and performed with drumming and dancing.

Descendants of enslaved laborers, including those who’ve recently formed a descendants’ group, talked about their history and their aspirations, and thanked their ancestors for their perseverance and resilience. Many of the speakers called for the University to continue initiatives to combat racism and to expand equity, saying the memorial is just the beginning.

“In order for us to continue to move forward in striving for equity, in striving for change,” Harris said, “we have to be able to talk about our past in a way that’s really meaningful. And a memorial, I think, is a beautiful first step in starting that conversation.”

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DeTeasa Brown Gathers, a UVA employee and a UVA parent, was a member of the MEL Community Engagement Committee and now co-chairs the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA. (Vinny Varsalona, University Communications)

In his remarks, President Jim Ryan reiterated the words of Isabella Gibbons, a former enslaved person owned by a UVA faculty member, that are etched in a timeline on the memorial’s inner circle: “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.” 

Gibbons eventually became a teacher at the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, and the artist Eto Otitigbe designed the image of her eyes on the outer stone wall of the memorial. Ryan said, “It is fitting her words, and her eyes … impel us to greater understanding, empathy and justice.”

Before giving a brief history of the memorial, Ryan called it “an especially meaningful symbol of healing and connectedness” and thanked those who worked on it – the many students, alumni (including the UVA IDEA Fund), faculty, staff and community members. He also acknowledged the descendants with ties to those whose names, vocations or “memory marks” – horizontal lines, denoting workers whose names are as yet unknown – are engraved on the memorial’s inner wall.

“Your ancestors toiled, often anonymously, facing violence and harassment, and not under their own free will, to build the University of Virginia,” Ryan said. “It is to them that we owe our deepest gratitude. May this memorial bring to their families a measure of solace and a step toward spiritual repair.”

The Dedication of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA

 

Alumni Ishraga Eltahir and Khalifa Sultan Lee told of the countless hours they and fellow students put into developing the idea for a memorial.

“Building on years of work of countless faculty, students and Charlottesville community members,” Eltahir said, “the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers [student] committee, established in 2009, pushed for truth-telling of a painful but critical part of the University’s story. Most importantly, we came together to acknowledge the very real lives of these honored women and men often erased from common narrative. It took several generations of stakeholders, fighting to make the case for public recognition.”

“All of us carried the work of reconciliatory action, community inclusionary education, as well as proper memorialization,” Lee said, recognizing “the students who worked tirelessly for love and righteousness to guarantee that there will be engagement in the topics of reconciliation, reparations and a correct storytelling of the legacy of enslavement at UVA.”

Eltahir said through a student design competition held in 2011, “we proved that the imagination, imperative and desire do all exist to tell this story in a dignified and honest way. Ten years later, to be here at this site is surreal for me. There are so many people whose imprint is on this project and who deserve credit,” she said.

President Emerita Teresa A. Sullivan appointed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University in 2013 to research the history of slavery and propose appropriate memorialization. “I created the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University because there was so much of UVA’s history we had lost or thrown away, and as we approached our bicentennial, we needed to recover what had been lost,” she said.

The commission, co-chaired by Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and inclusion, and Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and professor of history in the College of Arts & Sciences, issued a 2018 report about what had been uncovered and suggested a number of actions, including building the memorial and marking several other areas, one of which is an African American burial site.

Ryan said the commission’s report “was foundational to our understanding of the ways in which the reprehensible institution of slavery was, indeed, integral to the building, founding and early flourishing of UVA. Their careful scholarship and narrative were crucial to the design of the memorial.”

Von Daacke said the memorial is “the culmination of that process of research, acknowledgement, community engagement and atonement, [and] makes sure that we will never forget again their stories and we will always call their names.”

Several descendants told of their ancestors whose names are now etched in stone: Helice Henderson’s ancestor, Jim Henderson; Bertha French’s third great-grandmother, Priscilla; Joseph L. Creasy’s great-great-great uncle, Peyton Skipwith.

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Kimalee Cottrell Dickerson, a descendant of enslaved laborers, named several of her Cottrell ancestors, including Jim, Lucy and Dolly, who were enslaved at UVA. “To me, the memorial represents a visible reminder of the true history of slavery and racism at UVA,” she said. “But it also represents a space to remember the courage and contributions of my ancestors and the thousands of others, named and unnamed.”

Carol Malone, great-great-great niece of Peyton Skipwith, represented her family: “On behalf of the descendants of Mr. Peyton Skipwith, seeing his name on the MEL fills my heart with pride and sadness,” she said of the skilled stonemason who cut stone from a quarry for the construction of buildings on Grounds. In 2017, UVA dedicated Skipwith Hall in his honor, most likely built on the site of that quarry.

Peyton Skipwith, despite being enslaved, was an educated man, she said, “whose signature was a work of art, [but] who had to sign his name with an X for fear of death because he could read and write.”

Another descendant, Bertha French, an alumna who co-chairs (with UVA employee DeTeasa Brown Gathers) the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA, said she learned of more family connections to UVA from the memorial research, along with what she already knew of her ancestors in this community.

Chihamba, a Charlottesville-based African dance troupe, performed for the virtual dedication ceremony at the site. (Vinny Varsalona, University Communications)

She said the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA is “committed to connecting our membership’s memory and oral histories to archival sources to build out the biographies of the enslaved and free laborers and identifying new descendants through genealogical research.”

“Our ancestors’ legacy is, among many things, the actual university,” French said. “To tell the truth and help people reckon with this history the descendants seek to: research and reclaim the narrative to honor the legacies of enslaved and free Black communities and their descendants and to achieve restorative justice for communities rooted at the University of Virginia and surrounding regions.”

The descendants group held its inaugural “Descendants Day” on Friday, with a small group at the memorial observing a moment of silence. Later in the evening, the group hosted a virtual panel discussion on descendant communities in Virginia.

The weekend also included a virtual concert with the a capella group Take 6 and a live Q&A session afterwards.

UVA students Jayla Hart and Salem Zelalem, members of the FLUX Poetry & Spoken Word group, read their original poem, “My Serpentine,” for the virtual dedication ceremony. (Vinny Varsalona, University Communications)

In the prerecorded dedication ceremony, UVA students Jayla Hart and Salem Zelalem, who are members of the FLUX Poetry & Spoken Word group and graduate this year, read their original poem, “My Serpentine,” referring to the serpentine brick walls of the gardens that once concealed working enslaved laborers, about what it feels like to be Black students surrounded by this painful history.

My serpentine
I built you
Winding curves, cracks, and all
You cannot see yourself without me
My body
My being
My serpentine

I write you down and capture myself

I tear you down and free myself

The dedication ceremony concluded with members of the Chapman Grove Baptist Church choir singing the African American anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in a circle inside the memorial as the names of the enslaved laborers – or, for those whose names are still unknown, their family relationships or their occupations – scrolled down the screen.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications