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Thursday, August 19, 2021

August 19, 2021: Cville Updates: UVa Memorials to Enslaved Laborers

[For the rest of this week, I’ll be providing updates on a few topics from my hometown of Charlottesville about which I’ve blogged previously. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to an influential Cville figure I got to see again earlier this summer!]

Two core things I love about a new University of Virginia memorial.

In one of the posts in my annual Virginia/Cville series six years ago (but who’s counting?!), I wrote about the in-progress efforts to uncover and commemorate a forgotten burial ground for enslaved workers. Check out that post if you would, and then come on back for more.

Welcome back! As far as I can tell those efforts remain in-progress at that particular site (although they definitely are ongoing, thanks to the work of awesome folks like Kirt von Daacke), but that’s at least in part because in the meantime the university has completed and dedicated a memorial to those enslaved laborers elsewhere on the Grounds. And indeed, one of the things I really love about that memorial, which I had the chance to visit with the boys and my Mom when we were down in Cville in June, is precisely is location, just down the hill from the Rotunda and Thomas Jefferson’s original Lawn. After all, there would be no such places without the work of the enslaved laborers memorialized, and going forward it will be very difficult for any tourist, visitor, prospective student and family, etc. to walk through the Grounds without seeing this memorial. The memorial’s design, the way it is dug into and (I would argue) deeply rooted in the ground of those Grounds, means that such walkers can be almost upon it before they see its full, deeply moving scale, but that too feels fitting to me for the lives and histories it commemorates.

Those aspects of location and design would make this memorial one of my favorites regardless of the content, but I very much love the balance presented by the latter as well. The main outer wall of the memorial features the names of (or, in the many cases where names are tragically unknown, other identifiers for) all of the enslaved laborers historians have been able to locate. It would have been easy and understandable for the memorial to stop there, or perhaps to feature one plaque at the entrance with contextual information. But instead, along the wall of its inner fountain the memorial presents an extended chronology of those laborers and numerous historical contexts for their lives and work (in language that consistently engages with the harshest and most horrific realities of enslavement, racism, white supremacy, and more). Commemoration and education are not identical purposes, and of course too much information can take away from the emotion and potency of a memorial; but I believe this one achieves a perfect balance, commemorating these too-long overlooked figures and lives while also providing visitors with a great deal of vital detail about them and their (and our) world. I love this memorial, and I look forward to visiting it on many more Cville trips.

Last update tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Favorite memorials or public art you’d highlight?

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