Guests visit the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the University of Virginia’s campus. The design was led by Höweler + Yoon Architecture LLP, the Boston-based firm co-founded by Meejin Yoon, B.Arch. ’95, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Yoon: Enslaved laborer memorial invites healing, reflection

After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, supporters of White Coats for Black Lives gathered in early June around the ring-shaped Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the University of Virginia’s campus.

The tribute at the recently completed memorial, whose official dedication had been postponed by the pandemic, fulfilled a central goal of its design team, led by Höweler + Yoon Architecture LLP. The Boston-based firm was co-founded by Meejin Yoon, B.Arch. ’95, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP).

A visitor to the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers reads its wall of names, honoring members of the enslaved community at the University of Virginia.

The granite memorial honors the estimated 4,000 enslaved laborers who, from 1817 until 1865, built and sustained the university designed by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and a slaveholder. In addition to sharing that history and honoring the lives of each of the enslaved, Yoon said, the memorial sought to bring people together.

“It needed to be a space – a space of acknowledgement, a space of remembrance, but also a space for honoring Black voices and Black lives,” Yoon said. “It needed to be an active memorial, to acknowledge that the work of public history and the commemorative landscape was incomplete.”

As communities across the country grapple with the divisive legacies of monuments to Confederate leaders and other figures linked to oppression, the UVA memorial is winning praise for its inclusive and open-ended design that invites both reflection and an understanding of history as something alive and evolving.

The New York Times recently described the memorial as a place of “active, additive remembrance,” while the Washington Post called it “evocative and moving.” Architectural Record featured the project on its August cover.

Confederate monuments, many installed during the Jim Crow era, often present a singular narrative that defines who belongs and who doesn’t, said Yoon, a native of northern Virginia who spent time on UVA’s campus growing up.

“Every community should question why monuments exist in their public spaces,” she said, “and whether they’re sending the right message to the general public.”

Multiple layers of meaning

In contrast, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers strives to present multiple layers of meaning, Yoon said.

The final design of concentric circles of local “Virginia mist” granite enclosing a ring of grass was inspired by the “ring shout,” an African American spiritual dance. But some have interpreted the form as a broken shackle.

The design emerged from an intensive, four-year process that included more than 40 meetings with the community and stakeholders that sought to build trust between the designers, the university and the local Black community, some members of which historically have expressed discomfort in visiting the campus, Yoon said.

Going beyond standard engagement forums, the designers and teams of community ambassadors visited predominantly Black churches and schools and descendants of the enslaved laborers. Those discussions, which began in 2016, spurred at least a dozen preliminary designs for a project that initially had no defined budget, site or scale.

“It is about opening up dialogue,” said Yoon. “It is rebuilding a relationship and rebuilding trust. These are the necessary steps in the contemporary conversations about race and repair.”

Situated on UVA’s Triangle of Grass, the memorial’s exterior granite wall slopes to a height of 8 feet. Its 80-foot diameter mirrors the Jefferson-designed Rotunda in UVA’s nearby Academical Village.

Engraved on the wall’s interior are the first names, kin or occupations of 889 enslaved laborers whose identities were confirmed in historical records. Crescent-shaped underscores or slashes called “memory marks” – each unique in length and depth – honor roughly 3,000 more whose names are unknown and could be added as historians’ research continues.

The interior circle features a water table inscribed with a historical timeline that culminates in the death of Isabella Gibbons, a teacher who had been enslaved by a UVA professor, and a powerful quote from her.

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness?” Gibbons wrote. “Have we forgotten that by these horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, or ever will.”

History ‘an active project’

Gibbons’ eyes – designed by Brooklyn-based artist Eto Otitigbe, referencing the only known photographic image of an enslaved UVA laborer – gaze outward from the memorial and are visible only from a distance and in certain light.

A close-up of the inner wall of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, with names and memory marks honoring members of the University of Virginia’s enslaved community, after a rain shower.

“Maybe that resonates with how we should think about history,” Yoon said. “We need to be looking at it from many perspectives to understand more deeply the contexts that we find ourselves in today, and constantly make room to acknowledge that history is an active project.”

The design team brought an interdisciplinary and academic perspective to the project. In addition to Yoon, the team included her partner Eric Höweler B.Arch. ’94, M.Arch. ’96, architect and associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Otitigbe, a trained mechanical engineer-turned-artist and assistant professor of art at Brooklyn College; Mabel Wilson, a cultural historian and architecture professor at Columbia University and a UVA graduate; Gregg Bleam, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect; and Frank Dukes, a UVA graduate and faculty member who led the community engagement process.

Yoon said there’s a relationship between her work on the UVA memorial and ongoing work at Cornell and AAP to build an anti-racist community. She said the memorial, which was an outgrowth of a student design competition, is a testament to students’ ability to effect change in institutions. The design process, she said, helped expose how histories of dehumanization and brutality translated into structural racism and the need for active change.

Yoon has developed an action plan at AAP that includes asking a new diversity council composed of students, faculty and staff “to reimagine and rethink student education, support, recruitment and redress – and importantly, how we hold ourselves accountable for implementation and action.”

And she said growing concerns about injustice and sustainability have recommitted AAP students and faculty to thinking creatively and constructively about how to shape a better future.

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Gillian Smith