The Ways to Memorialize: The University of Virginia Maeve McCormick

Photo credit: Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post

On Feb. 24, 2007, the Virginia General Assembly issued a statement of profound regret regarding the forced enslavement of Africans on the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia.

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors followed suit a month later on April 24, the 264th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. The board also passed a resolution demonstrating its remorse for owning slaves from 1819 to 1865. Although students at UVA had been researching aspects of slavery since 1973, it was the first university statement on the issue of slavery, according to Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean, history professor and co-chair of the UVA President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

This statement came after the Board of Visitors approved the installation of a plaque embedded in the pavement under the Rotunda to honor the enslaved and free laborers who “helped to realize Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia,” according to the plaque.

“It’s woefully insufficient as an acknowledgment or memorialization because it co-mingles enslaved and free people during construction, when in fact, we know that the workforce was overwhelmingly enslaved,” von Daacke said. “It could leave you to think that slavery only existed… at the university until 1826 when construction was largely complete.

"And then it makes this weird pivot to Jefferson and his vision for the university and if you're going to appropriately acknowledge the humanity of the enslaved, the one person you probably shouldn't reference or quote is the man who enslaved 607 people over the course of his life.”

However, von Daacke acknowledges that the first act of memorialization at schools, like the plaque, can be awkward and embarrassing as schools try to figure out what will work best for their campus and community.

The next steps of memorialization were prompted by students through two groups: the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers group and the University Guides Service.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers group was started by two students in 2010 after the controversy that came from including Jefferson’s name on the plaque at the Rotunda that was meant to memorialize enslaved people. The students led community discussions, and, in 2011, hosted a design competition for a potential memorial. The group knew the memorial would not be built then but wanted to raise awareness for the idea as well as encourage their community to think creatively about how to memorialize UVA’s history with slavery, von Daacke said.

Starting in 2007, the University Guides Service, UVA’s tour guide group for both admissions and historical tours, took the initiative to emphasize the importance of telling UVA’s history of slavery on tours. They also worked to diversify the students who worked as tour guides, von Daacke said. In 2013, the group worked with several professors to release the Visitor’s Guide to Slavery at the University of Virginia. This brochure was the first published UVA-sponsored document that discussed slavery, von Daacke added.

Along with the students working toward memorialization, an alumni group called the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access) Fund was established in 2010.

“We have a very storied student group at the university committing to telling different stories, and alumni who are committing resources to rethinking… memorialization and interpretation [of their history] in public at UVA,” von Daacke said. “And that group together, all those forces arrive at the chief diversity officer, this is Dr. Marcus Martin.”

Martin, who has since retired, requested a presidential-level commision from UVA’s then-president, Teresa Sullivan, to figure out the best way to memorialize and interpret their past, von Daacke said. This led to the creation of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

Starting in 2014, the commission started engagement activities. The commission members recognized the importance of not just their school community, but the surrounding Charlottesville area where many faculty, staff and students live as well, von Daacke said. About 150 community members attended the first workshop the commission hosted.

“The very first person who stood up in this crowd of 150 people, the very first thing I heard at that meeting was ‘You better darn well build the memorial and [it] better be big, it better be visible and we'd better be able to get to it,’” von Daacke said. “That's what we want. So we knew right then… we have to build it and that informed everything we did, which was let's just keep taking what we're thinking about to all these communities and gather feedback.”

In the fall of 2016, the commission selected the Höweler + Yoon design team to create a memorial to the enslaved laborers, according to the commission’s website. The design team worked with community feedback to design the final memorial, which honors the 4,000 to 5,000 enslaved people who lived at UVA from some point between 1817 and 1865 and features 4,000 “memory marks” in their honor.

Although the memorial has been finished for over a year, the dedication was postponed until this April where a virtual dedication ceremony will be held over Zoom, von Daacke said.

UVA, like UR, discovered a cemetery for enslaved people on its campus grounds, von Daacke said. UVA found the burial ground next to the university cemetery. While holding an educational conference in 2014, UVA held a memorial and libation ceremony at the cemetery. Besides the conference attendees, community members and students joined the ceremony, which featured singing from a church choir, a poetry reading and a candle-lit walk.

In 2015, the commission decided to form a group, Virginia Colleges and Universities Studying Slavery, so that Virginia-area schools could share how they were memorializing, von Daacke said. Eight other Virginia-area schools were included, and they hosted workshops to share their different guiding principles and practices that were working. In late 2015, the group decided to open up membership to schools around the world and formalize the membership process, von Daacke said. The name was also shortened to Universities Studying Slavery. Membership is now up to 80 universities, including schools located in Canada, Scotland, Ireland and England.

The commission hosted a four-day Symposium titled “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape” in 2017. It brought together “universities, scholars, community members, descendants, historic sites, preservationists, and public historians for a free-ranging conversation about researching the enslaved past, disseminating findings to a broader public, and breaking down disciplinary boundaries as we collectively work to tell a fuller story about our own pasts,” according to the website.

The commission also designed a camp for high school students called the “Cornerstone Summer Institute, according to the commission’s website. It gives students the “opportunity to engage in historical investigation, archaeological excavation, and community engagement in order to learn and develop thinking skills that will prepare them for success in college and beyond,” according to the website. Students are able to go into UVA’s special collections and touch original documents, do an archaeological dig, work on a group project with UVA students, visit historical sites and engage with the surrounding community, von Daacke said.

In the future, the commission hopes to oversee the rolling out of this camp at other universities with this curriculum adapted to their own school so that more students get the opportunity to attend it, he added.

“One of the difficulties is it is hard to have high school students dive into all this,” von Daacke said. “You can't have a 200-person high school camp, I don't think, and effectively manage a group that large without there being some kind of problems. You want it to be really small, smaller, so we try to keep it to about 50 kids each year, but if you then had 50 schools running that camp, now you're hitting a lot of students.”

In 2018, the commission provided advice and recommendations to the president on how to continue the recognition and memorialization process. Some of these included investigating the interpretation of historically significant buildings and sites related to slavery at UVA, working with Monticello to research and host events revolving around Jefferson and slavery and promoting a historical exhibit focusing on UVA’s history with slavery. Although this was technically the end of this committee, UVA’s work is far from done, von Daacke said.

UVA has developed a new committee that focuses on the next 100 years in history including white supremacy and the Jim Crow era, which von Daacke is co-chairing, he said.

And it won’t end after this one, either.

“At some point, we're going to have to talk about gender, we're going to have to talk about how we are deeply resistant as an institution to co-education and that's in all its forms -- from forming a coordinate college to actually admitting women,” von Daacke said. “We have at Virginia schools, older ones too, often have a story about Native American removal… that needs to be told. So I can't anticipate what are the next set of stories, but I think there's a real push.”

Like at all schools, there were some ideas for memorialization that were thought of but would not work for the UVA community, von Daacke said. There have been no academic or curriculum changes at UVA because the university does not have general education requirements, but broader area requirements that many classes can fill. Although a mandatory class was something considered, they ultimately decided against it for those reasons, von Daacke said.

When asked why is it important for universities to reckon with their past histories regarding slavery and racism, von Daacke said, “[The question] is one universities typically don't want to answer, right? They don't want to talk about it. Why do universities exist? They exist to produce knowledge and to educate and if you consider off-limits your own history, you are failing to take the very tools of knowledge production and turn them.

“….It's not it's not all driven by [racism]. But they obscure those realities in really powerful ways. And so what we're trying to do is tell a fuller, more truthful story that's based on what we find in the archives.”

von Daacke’s advice for the University of Richmond during the beginning of our memorialization process is to be intentional and transparent.

“We are all now 21st-century universities; we're not the all-white male institutions we were founded as, and we haven't been that institution for a long time,” von Daacke said. “In our strategic vision and mission at every school, there's talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. That's just part of what schools do now. Well, if you are unwilling to examine how you created, benefited from and perpetuated those systems, you're not really committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Contact international editor Maeve McCormick at maeve.mccormick@richmond.edu