Documentary Details Creating the UVA Memorial to Bonded Laborers

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A question and answer period then featured several people in the film: Cauline Yates and DeTeasa Brown Gathers, residents members of the Descendants of UVA enslaved communities; Mike Spence, superintendent of general contractor Team Henry Enterprises who oversaw construction; and moderator Kirt von Daacke, UVA professor of history and co-chair of the UVA President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, who now directs the ensuing Gibbons Project.

Spence said it was a lifetime’s work working to build the memorial, “something that is a living force…a piece of love given back to the community.”

While working at the site, Spence regularly spoke to curious passers-by – some of whom studied or worked at UVA and others who visited, sometimes convincing them why such a memorial should even be built.

“Being black in this country is not an easy thing,” he said, “but thanks to my parents, I never saw myself as less than.”

“Don’t let anyone steal your joy,” his mother also told him.

But he turned to Yates sitting next to him on the panel as he recounted another emotional reason to honor enslaved laborers through his role as construction project superintendent.

“I’m building this for you,” he said, meaning the descendants who would finally see their ancestors get the recognition they deserved.

Yates, who is descended from the UVA and Monticello slave communities, said it always brings tears of joy to him to see his ancestors honored as the memorial comes to life, despite the painful history behind it. During the planning, she served on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Community Engagement Committee, a crucial part of the process. She lobbied for it to be built in a prominent location on Grounds, she said.

The circular memorial, made of local Virginia Mist granite, sits within the Academic Village UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rising wall is inscribed with more than 575 names of enslaved men and women who lived and worked on Grounds, as well as 311 phrases indicating someone’s kinship or occupation, such as “grandmother” or ” stonecutter “. Researchers estimate that at least 4,000 other names of people enslaved on Grounds remain unknown, represented on the memorial by 4,000 dark cuts in the stone.

“It was time,” Gathers said, “to dig up history from under our feet and bring the community back” to see the resilience of their ancestors. Having also joined the community engagement committee, Gathers said she was committed to the work of the descendants to spread this story.

In 2013, then-President Teresa Sullivan appointed the Presidential Commission on Slavery and the University, tasking it with pursuing the idea of ​​recognizing those who helped build and sustain UVA in its early years. years through research, education and commemoration.

The UVA Board of Visitors selected Boston-based firm Höweler + Yoon Architecture to design the memorial. The memorial has garnered attention and awards along the way. In 2020, Architect’s Newspaper selected the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as Project of the Year in its Best of Design Awards and also named it Best in the Public Space and Social Impact category.

As part of the planning process, in the fall of 2016, the firm Höweler + Yoon worked with the UVA Architect’s office and a team including Mabel O. Wilson, alumnus of the UVA School of Architecture and Professor of Architecture and African American Studies at Columbia University. ; Frank Dukes, co-founder of University & Community Action for Racial Equity and former director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the UVA School of Architecture; and Gregg Bleam, a landscape architect who taught at UVA and worked in and around the field for about 30 years. Brooklyn, New York-based artist Eto Otitigbe designed the exterior wall artwork that depicts the eyes of Isabella Gibbons, a former slave cook turned local schoolteacher.

The design team held several meetings, leading discussions with UVA and community members, asking them what they wanted to see in a memorial.

Construction was completed in early 2020, but the grand opening was delayed due to the COVID pandemic until the following year. Ceremony took place virtually and in person with social distancing.

Audience members at Sunday’s documentary screening noted how powerful it was to see the film.

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