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Virtual Liberation and Freedom Day event commemorates the legacies of enslaved laborers at U.Va.

The event included musical and spoken word performances and moving testimonies from descendants of enslaved peoples about what the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers means to them

The Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University held a virtual collaborative arts event to celebrate Liberation and Freedom Day to promote and honor the legacies of the enslaved laborers who contributed to the University. The event was composed of pre-filmed performances, stories and conversations among descendants and premiered virtually on Friday. 

Liberation and Freedom Day was first celebrated in 2017 when the Charlottesville City Council voted to commemorate March 3 as a day of celebration and reflection — honoring the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Charlottesville, allowing many enslaved African Americans to escape and follow the troops. 

Descendents of Enslaved Communities at U.Va. organized the virtual event. On their website, the organization defines its mission as “to research and reclaim the narrative, to honor the legacies of enslaved and free Black communities and their descendants, and to achieve restorative justice for communities rooted at the University of Virginia and surrounding regions.”

DEC Co-Chair DeTeasa Brown Gathers introduced the event and the organization, explaining that DEC “will serve as the collective voice of all descendants of enslaved and free Black communities who labored at the University of Virginia through research, education and preservation.”

Following Gathers’s introduction, Anthony Max-Yeboah poured a libation — a liquid offering that Max-Yeboah performed in the Ghanaian language, he said, in acknowledgment of the laborers who did not speak English — at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers to “pay tribute to our ancestors and celebrate their achievements.” 

The event was interspersed with short clips of descendants of enslaved laborers explaining what the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers meant to them. 

Kimalle Cottrell Dickerson — a descendant of enslaved laborers Jim, Lucy and Dolly Dickerson — called the Memorial a “visible reminder of the true history of slavery and racism at U.Va.” 

“It is a space to remember the courage [and] contributions of my ancestors and the thousands of others named and unnamed,” Dickerson said. 

Helice Henderson, DEC board member and descendant of enslaved laborer Jim Henderson, said that the Memorial meant “honoring and recognizing [her] ancestor and the other 4,000 slaves who built this institution.”

“It means telling their stories and [the] start of righting a wrong,” Henderson said. 

Lorenzo Dickerson, descendant of enslaved laborers Garland William Dabney Maupin and Sam Maupin, said that as a filmmaker and storyteller, the Memorial is an attempt to “uncover important stories.”

For Dickerson — a native of Albemarle county who is currently employed by the University as the director of communications in the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — the location of the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers is more than a destination.

“[The Memorial] is a physical acknowledgement of the work these folks did to build the University,” Dickerson said.

Other descendants, including Julia Hubbard and Virginia Porter, shared their testimonies through art. Hubbard performed a rendition of Common and John Legend’s “Glory” and recited excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” while Porter recited an original poem about her ancestors and said she felt that she had been called upon to “rise to the occasion of keeping our ancestors’ spirits and memories alive until their souls are at rest.”

“You thought we had been forgotten but we’re still here,” Porter said. “We’re the ones who built this University … we toiled night and day to make life better for you while our families were trying to have a life.”

After reciting her own poem, Porter performed a recitation of the Maya Angelou poem “Still, I Rise.” 

Descendant Kerri Coles performed a poem she wrote as a tribute to her own ancestors and all of those who were enslaved alongside them.

“We are guided by the stars … by the spirit and energy of our known and unknown African ancestors,” Coles said. “We are generationally protected, indestructible and abundantly blessed.” 

Poet and descendant Richelle Claiborne followed Coles’ poem with her own piece about choice and the lack thereof. Claiborne also called attention to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery when she spoke of her hopes for her own child.

“My daughter deserves a chance to go to school and not get shot, to go jogging and not get shot, to sleep in her bed and not get shot,” Claiborne said. “Choices people make every day without consequence should not cost us our lives.”

Following the powerful spoken performances, descendant Veronica Price-Thomas performed a dance at the historic first Baptist Church in Charlottesville. The church was formed in 1863 by Charlottesville Baptist Church’s black congregants, including those enslaved at the University, when they successfully petitioned white church leaders to establish separate services for African American members. 

Although a physical tour of the Memorial was not feasible, Gathers provided viewers with a shortened tour at the end of the event, in which she pointed out a poem by enslaved laborer, teacher and writer Isabella Gibbons.

Gathers closed the event with a piece of advice.

“If you do nothing else when you come visit the monument, read [Gibbons’s] quote,” Gathers said.

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, the whipping post, the auction block, the handcuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race killed? No, we have not, nor ever will,” her message reads. 

For more information on the work of DEC and upcoming events, visit their website