The official dedication ceremony for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers will occur virtually Saturday at 11 a.m. — one year after the initially planned formal dedication date, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the community are also invited to participate in a moment of silence at noon Friday to commemorate the more than 4,000 enslaved and free laborers who built the University.
Meghan Faulkner, chair of the MEL Community Engagement Committee, said the committee hopes to have an in-person ceremony in the future.
“There will be a gathering actually at the memorial when it is safe to do so in the future, but we are planning to move forward with the dedication and not reschedule again,” Faulkner said.
Several University faculty will speak during the dedication, including University President Jim Ryan; Teresa Sullivan, former University president and current interim provost at the University of Michigan; and Marcus Martin and Kirt von Daacke, co-chairs of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.
Community members will also speak, including Bertha French and DeTeasa Gathers, co-chairs of the Descendants of Enslaved Communities Leadership Group, and Reverend Alvin Edwards. Carol Malone — a descendant of Peyton Skipwith, an enslaved laborer at the University who was freed in 1833 — will give remarks as well. Darden alumnus John MacFarlane, Class of 2011 alumnus Ishraga Eltahir and Class of 2009 alumnus Khalifa Lee round out the list of speakers. Eltahir and Lee were student advocates for the memorial while enrolled at the University.
The virtual dedication ceremony will also feature speakers and musical and poetic performances. Third-year College student Jayla Hart and fourth-year College student Salem Zelalem from FLUX Poetry and Spoken Word at U.Va. will recite “My Serpentine.” Chapman Grove Music Ministry will sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing'' and Chihamba, a Charlottesville West African education and entertainment group, will make an appearance.
Additionally, the Grammy-winning musical group Take 6 will perform virtually the evening of April 10 at 7 p.m.
The day before the dedication, Descendants of Enslaved Communities at U.Va. will hold a virtual panel discussion on descendant communities in Virginia from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Panelists will include Dr. Andrea Douglass, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center; Dr. Jody Allen, assistant professor at William & Mary and director of The Lemon Project; and Dr. Michael Blakey, professor at William & Mary and advisor of the Montpelier Descendant Committee. The event is open to the public via Zoom, and participants should register in advance.
Community initiative for the memorial
Students began calling for the construction of a memorial over a decade ago.
In 2007, a memorial plaque was installed in the passage under the Rotunda’s south terrace, commemorating the “several hundred women and men, both free and enslaved” who built the University. Former University President John Casteen III led the effort to install the plaque, which has been criticized for its small size and failure to accurately represent the large role enslaved laborers had in constructing and maintaining the University.
In response to continued calls for recognition — both before and after the plaque’s installation — Student Council’s Diversity Initiatives Committee establishing a Memorial for Enslaved Laborers group in 2009.
According to the 2018 report from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, Student Council, the Black Student Alliance and the University and Community Action for Racial Equality held a joint memorial design competition in 2011, with hopes to inspire a “larger and grander slavery memorial.” Certain proposed elements from competitors were incorporated into the Memorial’s final design.
In December 2018, the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University — formed in 2013 by Sullivan — and the MEL commission officially began working with architecture firms, faculty, students, alumni and community members.
Finished last spring, the memorial served as a gathering place for those calling for racial justice and equity over the summer. On June 5, community members and many U.Va. Health workers knelt around the memorial in remembrance of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May.
Charlottesville resident Cauline Yates became a community engagement representative after she contacted Faulkner about the memorial and was invited to join the community engagement committee in 2019. Yates had already attended public meetings about the memorial’s design.
The community engagement committee, formed following the Memorial’s design completion, consists of University and community members as well as people from other parts of the state and country and is responsible for efforts to develop the upcoming dedication ceremony and educate the community and stakeholders on the memorial.
“Almost everyone seems to be pretty encouraged by [the memorial],” Yates said. “It is a different type of memorial and it was intentionally built that way. We wanted it to be unique for those of us sitting in on the design process.”
Yates is Sally Hemings’ seventh-generation great niece, which further inspired her to join the project. The Hemings family lived and was enslaved at Monticello for five generations, and the nine people Thomas Jefferson freed from slavery over his lifetime were all members of the Hemings family. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, and Jefferson had six children with her.
“I’m a descendant of the slaves at Monticello, so that was the guiding force for what [the Memorial] should look like for my ancestors,” Yates said. “That factors into [my decisions] a lot more than not being a descendant of the slave, because you think you know what you want to do or what you think is right. When your ancestor is a slave it might be a little different approach or you might look at it a little differently.”
In another effort to recognize the University’s historical ties to enslavement, descendants of enslaved and free Black individuals also established the Descendants of Enslaved Communities group last year to find and connect descendants of enslaved laborers at the University.
The University hired Dr. Shelley Viola Murphy as the descendants project researcher. Murphy locates descendants of enslaved community members who were identified in financial records and builds ancestry trees through genealogy research. Forty descendants have been identified to date, who assist Murphy in connecting other descendants.
“The descendants are critical in the support role for me,” Murphy said. “They are there to help with the recruitment of other descendants by sharing information via social media and locally.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 enslaved laborers worked at the University between the years of 1817 and 1865. The memorial includes hundreds of known names of enslaved laborers as well as 4,000 memory marks in honor of those whose names are unknown.
An ongoing effort at the University
Following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests calling for racial justice, University President Jim Ryan formed the Racial Equity Task force to provide recommedations the University could take to increase its equitability. The task force released a report in August which served as a “call to action for the University of Virginia to commit seriously to racial equity.”
This fall, the Board of Visitors approved and endorsed six of the 12 recommended suggestions in the report, including the removal of the George Rogers Clark statue and contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda.
Ilyas Saltani, chair of the Student Council Diversity Engagement committee and third-year College student, said the University’s increase in conversations regarding diversity and inclusion is commendable, but he would like to see more student involvement in the task force which consists solely of University faculty members.
“We know that [change] is not going to happen overnight nor do we expect it to happen so quickly, but I think what we're trying to lobby for now is more transparency in the process and also having more student involvement in the process,” Saltani said. “[The task force] is very removed from the student body — it’s kind of like the administration tackling this issue on their own.”
Saltani noted that there are no Black women on the task force, which is “a huge narrative” and perspective the task force lacks. He said he and some other Student Council members would like to see increased transparency and student involvement in the task force.
The University announced its Inclusive Excellence framework in early 2020, which will aim to guide different schools and departments in the University to work towards more equality and inclusion. Saltani said the framework is an effort to improve the University by making it more accessible and inclusive and will include student involvement.
In January, the University announced a new interdisciplinary undergraduate academic initiative focused on “Race, Place and Equity.” The program will allow for undergraduates, professors and post-doctoral fellows to work together and engage with the Charlottesville community to address and learn about racial equity.
This project is funded by a three-year, $5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and its design team will meet this spring to develop the program’s syllabus.
Though the dedication Saturday will mark the end of a more than a decade’s worth of work, activists continue to call on the University to work towards reparations and comprehensive culture shift beyond the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.