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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 4, 2015: Virginia Connections: UVa’s African American Cemetery

[If it’s August, it must be time for my annual pilgrimage to my Virginia homeland with my boys—and my annual series AmericanStudying the Old Dominion. Leading up to a special weekend post on the people who really signify “Virginia” to me!]
On an inspiring attempt to right a historic wrong, and its limits and possibilities.
Mr. Jefferson’s University was largely built, and for its first half-century largely maintained and run, by slaves. As illustrated by the topic of yesterday’s post, that’s far from the only, nor even necessarily the most telling, such contradiction and hypocrisy in Jefferson’s life, work, and identity, and those of the nation he helped found. Yet it’s a particularly glaring example, not only because this beacon of educational progress (the nation’s first secular institution of higher education and one of the accompishments Jefferson was most proud of) was constructed by enslaved labor, but also and even more tellingly because that history was swept under the rug so fully and for so, so long. It was only very recently that some UVa tours began addressing slavery at all, and I would argue that it’s still entirely possible to visit the grounds, indeed to spend multiple days at the university, and encounter no sign whatsoever of those dark, complex, vital histories.
That sad fact is less true now than at any prior point in the university’s history, however, and that’s due entirely to the newly commemorated African American burial site and accompanying memorial. Dedicated as part of the fall 2014 national symposium “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery,” this memorial highlights an actual but long forgotten burial site for African American laborers (likely both enslaved and free), one located adjacent to yet tellingly apart from the existing University of Virginia Cemetery. Accidentally discovered in 2012 as part of an archaeological survey, the burial site contains 67 unmarked grave shafts; only a tiny percentage of the African Americans who worked and lived at, and contributed immeasurably to, the university, of course, but a representative community and space to be sure. I can think of few images more potent nor more pitch-perfect than those accompanying this article on the memorial’s dedication—all those lamps, each located over and representing one of the graves, each shedding its light on these people and histories far too long left in the dark.
Those lamps aren’t permanent parts of the memorial and site, though—and while I certainly understand the practicalities of that choice, the truth is that the site is (to this observer at least) a bit too understated and thus easy to miss as a result. As of my June visit, at least, it’s simply a fenced-in grassy area next to the main cemetery; there is a clear and compelling placard near the entrance that communicates the relevant histories and details, but again I can see visitors easily overlooking the space or missing entirely what it includes and symbolizes. Since the graves were unmarked, it’d be impossible to provide identifying headstones or the like; and it’s my understanding that there are concerns about destroying or damaging the graves, which I get as well. But nonetheless, I believe something more is needed—more around the grounds of the university, highlighting this new site and pointing visitors in its direction; more at the site itself, to pay tribute at least to those 67 people and their forgotten stories; and perhaps, to echo my points on the Slavery at Monticello app in yesterday’s post, more in the way of highlighting and sharing the burial site’s histories digitally. The site is a wonderful and vital addition to the university, but there’s more to be done!
Next Virginia connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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