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UVA Memorial

A team of designers are set to unveil their latest proposals for a memorial to the enslaved men and women who built and operated the University of Virginia for much of the 19th century. WMRA's Jordy Yager has more. 

You might think Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia. But a group at UVA is trying to change that perception.

KIRT VON DAACKE: Anywhere from—it depends on the year, but at the height of construction, probably 30 to 50 enslaved people living and working on grounds, if not more.

Kirt Von Daacke is an associate professor and assistant dean in UVA’s history department.

VON DAACKE: And then after the university opens, any given year, it’s 90 to 150 enslaved people living and working at the university. They’re cooking food, washing clothes, doing repairs…There’s this constant story of interaction with the much larger community beyond the university walls. And those people who gave a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to the university simply are not recognized in any meaningful way around grounds.

Von Daacke is the co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. The commission, formed in 2013, is charged with researching and documenting the lives of hundreds of enslaved men and women, who have largely been unacknowledged since UVA’s founding. The group is coming up with ways to recognize those African-Americans, the bondage they were held in, and the legacy that that slavery has left behind.

A significant part of that process will get one step closer Monday as members of the public weigh in on new ideas that a design team has drafted for a memorial to the enslaved at UVA.

Dr. Marcus Martin is the vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at UVA, and a professor of emergency medicine. Martin is the other co-chair of the slavery commission overseeing the memorial’s creation.

MARCUS MARTIN: It’s a place for us to heal regarding what has happened in the past. We can’t erase that history. But moving forward, we certainly can contemplate, we can educate, and particularly new students who are coming to the university and current students, they need to know the history of the university. Whereas in the past, the history about slavery I would say was not put up front and center, and some people would say, sort of swept under the carpet, we can’t do that anymore.

Over the last two and a half years, the commission and the design team have held multiple information and listening sessions all over town, from local African-American churches to civic centers, and even one solely for UVA employees.

Gregg Bleam is part of the design team that will present ideas to the public on Monday. He’s worked for three decades as a landscape architect in Charlottesville.

GREGG BLEAM: We started really with doing a lot of listening. So we don’t feel like this is really our memorial per se, we really feel like it’s something we’re doing for the community and for the university. So our first task is really to be good listeners and just try to understand what the issues are.

Frank Dukes is in charge of community engagement for the design team. Dukes is a fellow at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at UVA. He says, because so few of the descendants of the enslaved are known today, that the current greater community of Charlottesville has to serve as their proxy. Dukes says, that yes, the lives of the enslaved were harsh, brutal, and in many ways tortured.

FRANK DUKES: But they also had agency, they had lives, they made families, they had religious institutions, and they were craftsmen and so they created this magnificent university. They were largely responsible for the building of it. And so both of those need to be recognized, and I don’t know that the design team could have considered that had they not been hearing from people as well.

There’s been another important sentiment coming from the community, says Von Daacke.

VON DAACKE: People ask me, “Well, has there been pushback?” And yeah, there’s been pushback. The pushback has typically been, “Well that’s great that you’re doing this one thing, why aren’t you doing more?” And so I think the tricky part has been explaining to people about all the multiple prongs that we are simultaneously pushing forward with are connected.

Two years ago a $35 million student dorm, built across from the football stadium, was named after William and Isabella Gibbons, two prominent African-Americans enslaved by UVA professors in the mid 19th century. In April, another building will be dedicated to Peyton Skipwith, an enslaved man who quarried stone used to build the university. Von Daacke also points to the recently rediscovered and contextualized African-American cemetery on campus, and the new, enormously popular, class for freshmen and sophomores called “Slavery and its Legacies.” But, he says, that’s just the start.

VON DAACKE: Sometimes we hear that the university is the plantation or the big plantation, that there’s a long history here that we need to be thinking about things that arch well beyond slavery, and I think the commission completely agrees, but we feel like we only have a few years, let’s get the foundation. The first part of this reconciliation, getting us collectively to a place where we can talk about repair, about the living wage, is to appropriately acknowledge this past history.

At the last forum in January, the design team heard the public’s feedback on six different ideas for memorials that it drafted for three possible sites across campus. “What’s missing from the design?” they asked. “How can they be more relevant for each generation?” On Monday, the team will unveil several new designs that aim to incorporate that feedback, with the intention of getting even more of the public’s reaction.

The commission plans to present UVA’s Board of Visitors with a final design and site location in June. And then, the fundraising will begin—the cost is still unknown at this point.

The community forum on the memorial is tonight at 6 p.m. at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center in Charlottesville.

For WMRA News, I’m Jordy Yager

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.