Within the concentric rings of the granite memorial, depicted in this rendering, will be a grassy circle suitable for gatherings of all kinds. Courtesy of Höweler + Yoon Architecture

Soon to rise prominently along a well-traveled path between the Corner and the Rotunda, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers is by design a complex expression of the University of Virginia’s relationship with slavery.

It will recognize the pain of the enslaved people who built and toiled for the University, but also their resilience. It will be built on the world-honored Grounds, but also on a specific site of enslavement. It will speak to and for the University, but also to and for the wider Charlottesville community. It is a space meant for rallies and performances and also for contemplation.

Approved by the Board of Visitors in June, the Freedom Ring memorial is targeted to be complete by the University’s Bicentennial in 2019. A campaign to raise the estimated $6 million cost is in the wings. 

The memorial’s design depicts symbolic meaning inside meaning inside meaning. Signifying broken shackles, an open-ended circular wall of granite will rise to a height of 8 feet.  In an echo of the Rotunda’s dome, the granite wall will be 80 feet in diameter. Its rough-hewn outer face will recall the scarring violence of slavery. (For more on the memorial’s symbolism, see below.)

The final design is credited to a team tasked by the Board in 2016, including the Boston firm Höweler + Yoon, cultural historian and designer Mabel Wilson (Arch ’85), University and Community Action for Racial Equity founder Frank Dukes (Col ’75) and Charlottesville-based landscape architect Gregg Bleam. But it encompasses elements drawn from creative conversations, University and community focus groups, and activism over the eight years since student leaders originally called for a prominent memorial to the slaves who helped build and who were essential to the functioning of the University in its first half-century.

“Acknowledgement is a dynamic process,” says Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97), co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. “The memorial is the capstone of that process.”

He points to previous actions to commemorate the roles and contributions of free and enslaved African-Americans at the University, such as the discovery and preservation of the African-American cemetery, the park commemorating the Catherine Foster community, changes in walking tours and interpretation, and the inception of the March 3 Liberation Walk, memorializing the 1865 day on which Union troops enforced emancipation in Charlottesville. The Liberation Walk begins at the slave auction site in the city, and the gathering space of the Freedom Ring is intended as its future endpoint.

“The memorial is one part of a much bigger project,” Wilson says. “Collectively, it could be an important lesson not just for the University and the area, but for America—and the world.”

Meanings of the Memorial

The memorial will be built along what is now a busy path leading from the Corner to the Academical Village, prominently connecting the community and the University. Visibility and accessibility were repeatedly favored in community discussions, while sites such as the Lawn were regarded as isolated. The land on the site was also originally cultivated by slaves.

1. The open-ended ring shape evokes broken shackles and the jubilant “ring shout” dance in which slaves blended African traditions with Christian worship. Rings nest within rings, from the curved wall to the interior walking path to the curved bench and water course to the round, grassy gathering space planted with blue snowdrops that will flower in February during Black History Month.

2. A flowing shelf of water will signify libation—as might be done to honor ancestors or celebrate life-changing events—and add sound to the memorial, echoing from the parabolic granite wall. In addition, the water will recall the brutal Middle Passage, but also the river paths to escape and freedom.

3. Inscribed on the inner granite wall will be the names of 973 enslaved people known to have built and toiled at the University. Most will be first names only because that’s all that was recorded. Place markers will denote the approximately 5,000 other slaves believed to have labored at the University but who are nameless to history.

4. The outer granite wall will be rough-hewn, to indicate whipping and scarring and the physical violence of slavery. Subtle images of the features of human faces, drawn from period photographs and meant to represent all the enslaved people, will look out from the rough surface.

A grove of trees will envelop the Freedom Ring, suggesting “brush arbors” or “hush harbors”—the sheltered clearings in the woods where slaves gathered for worship and for escape. Within the concentric rings of the granite memorial will be a grassy circle for gatherings. “Plantation Burial” by John Antrobus

The Freedom Ring will sit at the intersection of two brick walks: One runs below Brooks Hall in the direction of the North Star, the fugitive slaves’ direction of escape, and the direction a visitor will face entering the Freedom Ring. The other will align with the sunset on March 3, the day in 1865 when Union troops freed the local enslaved community—now known as Liberation and Freedom Day.

The 80-foot Freedom Ring will echo the classical dimensions of the Rotunda, and it will be made from the same stone used for the upper terrace of the Rotunda. Enslaved laborers quarried and transported stone at the University, in addition to working as skilled stonecutters and masons on its original buildings.

SOURCES: Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Design Committee members, Höweler + Yoon website, UVA BOV presentation