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Virginia Memorial Highlights Historic Ties Between University, Slavery

Monument guides other colleges that are exploring their ties to enslaved people

spinner image memorial of enslaved laborers at the university of virginia
Visitors look over inscriptions on the walls of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
AP Photo/Steve Helber

In 1817, Thomas Jefferson traveled to an abandoned farm near his home to launch his final public project.

Joining him that day were 10 enslaved laborers who became the first of thousands forced to shape the land, construct the buildings and serve the students at what would become the University of Virginia (UVA). Through the centuries, the institution Jefferson founded gained global fame for its design, winning a spot on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

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In 2020, the university recognized the contributions of the enslaved people that literally built the institution. The $7 million Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, completed in July, occupies prime real estate on the historic university grounds, visible from Charlottesville's main street and just down the hill from the famed university rotunda and lawn.

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

Where: The University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The memorial is near the intersection of Elliewood Avenue and University Drive.

Parking: Available at the Central Grounds Garage, 400 Emmett St. S.

Cost: Access to memorial is free but expect to pay for parking

"The history has always been hidden in plain sight,” says Kirt von Daacke, a UVA professor and cochair of the committee that researched and planned the memorial. Now it's on full display.

4,000 slaves built, maintained school

The walk-through monument of two concentric rings honors the documented 4,000 enslaved people who worked at the institution. Some were owned by professors and students or rented by the university from local plantations. Several were purchased from Jefferson's estate after his death.

The outer wall now lists 583 individuals, although few have last names, and that number will continue to grow as more enslaved workers are identified. The memorial also has 311 noted by occupation — blacksmith, stonemason, carpenter — or kinship, like father, grandmother, uncle. But most, whose names could not be determined, are represented by so-called “memory marks” — gashes in the black Virginia mist granite meant to evoke scars left by a slave master's whip.

A slavery time line on the interior wall begins with the importation of Africans to Virginia in 1619 and includes university history, like three students’ documented assault of a 12-year-old enslaved girl in 1850. Alumna Renate Yarborough Sanders, 59, was deeply moved during her summer visit.

"As I approached the highest point, it was almost like it was swallowing me.” The retired elementary school teacher from Newport News, Virginia, who is Black, said the university's ties to slavery never were discussed when she was a student in the 1980s.

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While the memorial is the largest to acknowledge a university's connection to slavery, others are following suit. More than 70 schools are participating in a UVA-led project that is investigating and documenting the deep ties found at educational institutions.

Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., began to address its connection after it was revealed that proceeds from the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people were used to pay off the institution's debts. Among other larger universities that have acknowledged their connections to slavery: Brown in Providence, Rhode Island; Emory in Atlanta; Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the University of Maryland in College Park.

A few other institutions have slavery plaques or memorials, and others have them planned, including the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, named for a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention who owned 100 enslaved people.

University honoring descendants, too

UVA's monument isn't just a nod to the past, says Andrea Douglas, executive director of Charlottesville's Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and cochair of the memorial commission. The university has identified about 70 descendants of the enslaved, and some still live in the area, she says.

"They moved into the urban ring of Charlottesville and began to build a Black middle class,” Douglas says. That led the university to place the memorial on the edge of its grounds, making it accessible to the community.

Joanne Beauvoir Brown, 56, who graduated in 1986, received a jar of soil from the memorial construction site when she visited for a reunion in 2019. She has followed its progress on Instagram ever since.

"As a Black student who had been there, I felt this was a beautifully honest way to face a hard truth about a university I love so deeply,” says Brown, a lawyer who works as the diversity officer for a private school in Atlanta. “You're not just talking about bondage and struggle, but you're also seeing [the enslaved] through a lens of dignity and honor."

I felt this was a beautifully honest way to face a hard truth about a university I love so deeply.

— Joanne Beauvoir Brown, Decatur, Georgia

The memorial was carefully planned. Its 80-foot diameter matches the size of the rotunda. A walkway leading to the site aligns with the sunrise on March 3, the day in 1865 that Union troops arrived in Charlottesville and freed the enslaved. And the exterior wall bears the faint outline of the eyes of Isabella Gibbons, an enslaved woman who after emancipation become a teacher in Charlottesville.

Douglas thinks the project has succeeded. During her weekly Sunday walk, she sees families and students touring the memorial. And during the summer unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, local health care workers protested there.

"It's a lovely, elegant object in and of itself. It's doing all the things a university setting is supposed to do,” Douglas said. “You can no longer come and not be engaged in a conversation about how the site came to be."

spinner image unsung founders memorial on the campus of the university of north carolina
Arthur Greenberg / Alamy Stock Photo

Other universities’ monuments to their enslaved ancestors

While UVA's memorial is the largest, other schools publicly acknowledge their connection to slavery. Among them:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is believed to have installed the first college monument to enslaved people in 2005. The Unsung Founders Memorial, a gift from the graduating class of 2002, depicts 300 bronze figurines holding up a black marble table. Located in McCorkle Place, a main university quad, it was positioned to face “Silent Sam,” the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that protesters pulled down in 2018.

In 2014, Brown University installed its Slavery Memorial on the Front Green outside University Hall on the Providence campus. The display includes a sculpture of a ball and broken chain, while a plaque notes that in the 18th century, “slavery permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island.”

In 2017, Harvard Law School marked its bicentennial by unveiling a plaque at the center of its plaza honoring “the enslaved whose labor created wealth” that financed the institution. A year earlier, the university unveiled a plaque at Wadsworth House, honoring four enslaved people that Harvard presidents who lived there had owned.

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