Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Erected at the University of Virginia

4,000 slaves who built uva memorialized

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The University of Virginia created a memorial to acknowledge the thousands of enslaved workers who helped build the university, The Washington Post reported. Its concentric circles capture and project the voices of those within it, a metaphor for the lost stories of the laborers. The fight for abolition began among the enslaved far before white allies emerged.

Free hands from shackles
In 1777, the state constitution of the newly created Commonwealth of Vermont abolished slavery, with Vermont becoming the first state to do so. Photo By shutting / Shutterstock

According to The Washington Post, a memorial to the slaves who built the University of Virginia was meant to be unveiled in April, until the coronavirus changed that. However, its design is evocative and unique.

“If you stand outside the concentric rings of the University of Virginia’s new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, there is a curious acoustic phenomenon: The conversations of people within the gray, granite walls are clearly audible, even at a distance,” the article said.

“This evocative and moving new memorial to the thousands of enslaved people who helped build and then served the university that Thomas Jefferson designed can make private conversations public. And that echoes the larger challenge of this memorial, part of the university’s ongoing effort to confront the legacy of slavery and white supremacy: how to memorialize people whose names and stories are mostly lost to history.”

Slavery remains a heated topic for many Americans. However, until the late 18th century, it was largely fought against by those in chains.

The First Abolitionists

Perhaps the most obvious and yet, somehow, most overlooked facet of slavery is the absolute lack of choice its victims had in how they would go about living their lives.

“Slavery never had the consent of those it sought to oppress,” said Dr. Richard Bell, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. “No one in chains was ever indifferent to their enslavement and many chose to act upon the rage, pain, and grief that burned inside of them, finding direct and personal ways to seize freedoms wherever they could. No one else was more determined or more resolute in the fight against slavery than the enslaved themselves.”

Furthermore, Dr. Bell said, the enslaved were mostly on their own in the fight before the end of the 18th century. He said that until Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery, in 1777, the concept of abolition seemed nonsensical to most people who weren’t slaves.

“Only by taking this long view can we discern just how isolated African slaves were in the beginning and just how many decades it took for any organized coalition of northern free blacks and their white allies to emerge,” Dr. Bell said. “Even then, it was the slaves themselves who continued to take the lead.”

The Powers of Empathy and Privilege

“As the northern free black population grew in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the activists in that community linked their fates to those still enslaved, relying on black fugitives from the southern states to testify to the regime’s horrors to northern white folk who could never experience it for themselves,” Dr. Bell said.

“Without enslaved people’s daily demonstrations that they preferred freedom to bondage, no larger biracial movement to obliterate slavery would have emerged before the Civil War. But thankfully, it did.”

The northern allies who woke to the cause of freeing the slaves not only tried to help them share their experiences, but they used their positions in society to try every method of fighting the slavery regime that they could imagine.

“As it grew, the cause of antislavery adopted one set of tactics and strategies after another,” Dr. Bell said. “First the movement was elitist, then it was popular. It was legalistic, then moralistic; it was secular then evangelical; it was religious then political; it was nonviolent; then, belatedly, it was militant.

“When one strategy failed, another replaced it, only to give way, in time and in turn, to something else.”

At the University of Virginia, enslaved laborers are finally getting credit for their work building the university. Their stories may yet live on, but empty lines along the memorial signify the unknown slaves who toiled alongside them. These blank spaces where names should be are to serve as reminders of the cruel and dehumanizing legacy of slavery.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds a BA from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard University.