Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at University of Virginia
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Charlottesville, United States
Eric Höweler and J. Meejin Yoon
Dr. Mabel O. Wilson (Studio&), Dr. Frank Dukes, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Eto Otitigbe
University of Virginia - Alice J. Raucher FAIA, AUA, LEED AP, University Architect
The design team set out to create a space that reflected the work UVA students and the PCSU began years earlier. To achieve this, the Memorial’s commemorative forms and historical inscriptions acknowledge the dualities of enslavement—the pain of bondage and hope for the future. It encourages multiple visitor experiences by layering imagery, forms, and rituals from across the African diaspora and African continent.
The Memorial’s inner wall honors each of the members of UVA’s enslaved community. The design team worked with researchers to display the names of 578 members, and another 311 members whose names were not identified in records but are acknowledged by their occupation or kinship relation, as they were recorded without names. The 4,000 memory marks serve to underscore each enslaved person’s life and to remind visitors of the violence incurred in the dehumanization of men, women, and children whose names remain unknown.
The Memorial celebrates the bonds of community that nurtured resistance and resilience to the dehumanizing violence that shaped the everyday experience of enslaved life at UVA. The design carves out a gathering space for the community to continue the conversation about slavery and the ongoing injustices that catalyzed it. Even before its formal dedication, the Memorial was inaugurated as a site for group and individual contemplation during the national protests against racialized violence, including the White Coats for Black Lives demonstration in June of 2020 following the death of George Floyd.
An estimated 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the Grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865. Owned and rented by the University, they created and maintained its grounds, pavilions, and Rotunda. In 2010, UVA students catalyzed a memorial to honor the lives of the enslaved community with initiatives to raise awareness about the history of slavery at the University, forming a student-run competition for a memorial the following year. The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU) was then formed in 2013 to explore and report on the history of slavery on UVA Grounds and consider ways to commemorate their contribution to the institution founded by Thomas Jefferson—the architect of the University of Virginia and a slave holder. Other groups key to the process included the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers (MEL), the UVA IDEA (Inclusion Diversity Equity Access) Fund, and University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE). The PCSU brought together thought leaders to consider how to recognize UVA’s complex history and launch scholarship and research into this period, laying the groundwork for the Memorial, which was commissioned in 2016.
The design process began that October with a series of dialogues and community engagements led by Höweler and Yoon, historian and designer Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, community engagement facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes. In multiple public forums and surveys, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members, including descendants of the enslaved, shared their vision, aspirations, and ideas. Their generous responses informed each element of the Memorial’s design.
The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers rises on the east side of the Lawn, directly east of Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda. It is sited in the Triangle of Grass, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The valleys that frame the entrance into the neighboring Academical Village were part of a larger landscape strategy to hide enslaved labor. The Memorial transforms the historical use of landscape as a tool of domination into a means for expressing openness and community.
The Memorial’s form consists of concentric rings constructed out of local “Virginia Mist” granite, featuring a meeting ground, a water table, a sweeping concave wall of memory marks, and names of the enslaved community. The exterior ring incorporates artist Eto Otitigbe’s likeness of Isabella Gibbon’s eyes. As an enslaved domestic worker at UVA and later a teacher in Charlottesville, Gibbons is represented as a witness and scribe. The innermost ring presents a timeline that narrates the experiences of enslaved people at UVA, placing them within a larger historical context. It begins with the first written mention of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia in 1619 and culminates in Gibbons’ words, marking her death in 1889. The walls and surfaces recall the material culture of enslaved workers and their craftsmanship by using marks, carvings, textures, and imagery redolent of the physical suffering of the enslaved and the endurance of their human spirit. The wall of marks and names is an unfinished archive, with names to be added as they are discovered.