Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, designed the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville and had it built and serviced by slaves. This side of the university’s history was long obscured until 2010, when a student initiative became involved in reappraising the institution’s background. The initiative called for the erection of a monument, which was completed this year. Even before the inauguration, the site had become a place of individual contemplation and larger assemblies aimed at bringing public attention to the institutional racism and police violence to which many African Americans are still subjected.
The monument consists of several concentric circles clad with a grey granite known as Virginia Mist. Towards the footpath, the outer circle sinks: this is where visitors can enter the monument. The first ring is a water table that surrounds the circular grass area at the centre of the site. The water table features a timeline that tells the story of the enslaved African Americans from 1619, when the first slaves arrived in Virginia, until 1889, when Isabella Gibbons died. Gibbons was kept as a slave at the university; after liberation, she worked as a teacher in Charlottesville. Thanks to her writings, which did not gain attention until the 21st century, she has become the posthumous voice of the African-American slaves at UVA. Excerpts from these writings are also found in the inner circle of the monument, and a large-scale likeness of Gibbons’ eyes has been inscribed on the exterior of the monument by artist Eto Otitigbe.
Markings on the inside of the outer circle stand for the 4,000 slaves to whom the monument is dedicated. To date, 578 names have been inscribed. 311 others are represented by their jobs or family positions. For those still missing, the markings act as place-holders, an incomplete archive that will fill out as research progresses.
Boston-based architects Höweler + Yoon, both of whom work as university professors, intentionally created the monument to be an invitation to various forms of commemoration – assemblies, celebrations, performances, education or citizen action. Its round shape and water table pay homage to several elements from the African diaspora, for instance the libation ritual and the Ring Shout, a spiritual dance that is carried out in a circle and celebrates liberation. A pathway of stepping stones leads northward from the monument. For slaves, the North Star pointed the way to freedom.