By Evelyn Hockstein
The Rotunda, with its tall columns and domed roof, is the centerpiece of the University of Virginia’s idyllic campus, a building designed by Thomas Jefferson, who modeled it after the Pantheon in Rome, as he sought to build a school that embraced rigorous intellectualism and egalitarianism. But in a grotesque contradiction, enslaved laborers brought that vision to life.
The Rotunda now has a brick-and-mortar counterpoint, a memorial where visitors can honor the lives of the 4,000 enslaved people whose forced labor built the stately campus. On Saturday, in a prerecorded virtual ceremony, the university dedicated the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, the product of more than a decade of advocacy by students, historians, activists and descendants.
The memorial is a broken circle with the same circumference as the Rotunda, and the stone walls are engraved with the names of a fraction of the thousands who labored on the campus. The vast majority of their names have been lost to history, but their lives are honored with lines inscribed in the stones the creators called “memory marks.” In some cases, researchers were able to find records of their roles, such as carpenters or masons, but not their names, so those are also engraved on the wall.
Those who spoke at the virtual dedication included alumni who began the push for the memorial more than a decade ago and descendants of the enslaved laborers. For descendants, the memorial, set among lush trees, creates a space where they can contemplate and honor the sacrifices their ancestors made.
“I’ve stood, cried, grieved in the midst of the monument, encamped by slopes of granite,” descendant Carolyn Mitchell Dillard said in a prerecorded video message. “We are here because of you, and we are grateful for your endurance, your strength, your perseverance and your love.”
For many descendants, the painful history is omnipresent. Some still live in Charlottesville, where life revolves around the university, were born at the university hospital and now work in the buildings constructed by their ancestors. Some attend the school, studying at an institution that vigorously defended slavery.
The University of Virginia is the latest institution of higher education to grapple with its ties to slavery. Elsewhere, students and alumni have pushed colleges and universities to strip the names of racist leaders from buildings, and to investigate and unearth the biographies of the enslaved people who in many cases built universities and worked on their campuses, sometimes as the property of professors.
At U-Va., the horrific conditions enslaved people endured and worked under belie the beauty of the campus, umbrellaed in foliage and covered with rolling green expanses of lawn.
Much of what enslaved people survived has been lost, but those records that have been uncovered shock the conscience. In 2018, the university released a report documenting the central role enslaved laborers played in funding, building and maintaining the university. Slaveholding families who had built their wealth on enslaved labor sent their sons to the school. University professors rented or owned enslaved people. In antebellum days, enslaved people were a regular presence on campus, numbering at times in the hundreds. The university’s hallowed founder, Jefferson, owned 600 enslaved people over the course of his lifetime.
“Their wealth, a product of human bondage, was vital to the birth of the University of Virginia,” the authors of the report wrote. “Slavery, in every way imaginable, was central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school.”
In 1826, two White students raped and then later beat a 16-year-old enslaved girl, blaming her for a venereal disease they had contracted, historian Alan Taylor, a U-Va. professor, recounted in his book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Education.” In 1856, a student savagely beat a 10-year-old enslaved girl, claiming the girl had disrespected him when she wandered through campus.
At Clemson University, an undergraduate last year pushed officials to investigate and uncover the unmarked graves of enslaved people who had worked the land where the campus now sits. The university was built in the late 19th century — after the abolition of slavery — but many of those who worked on it were African Americans convicted of petty crimes and sentenced to work on university’s construction without pay.
Georgetown University, whose early leaders sold 272 enslaved people to pay off its debt, commissioned an investigation to learn their names. In 2016, the university apologized for its role in supporting slavery. It has since helped pave the way for the descendants of enslaved people to attend the university, giving them the same admissions preference granted to the children of alumni and faculty. Jesuits, the Catholic order that founded the university and owned the enslaved people who were sold, last month pledged $100 million to support descendants with scholarships and to fund programming pushing racial reconciliation and justice through the newly created Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.