University of Virginia Unveils an Extraordinary Land Art Memorial

In April 2020, UVA unveiled one of the newest and most elegant architectural landscapes in the world, the University’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (MEL). 

On ground once fallowed but now hallowed, alongside The Corner on a line to The Rotunda, the site represents over a decade of research and collaboration by scores of University and community members.

 “The President (Jim Ryan) calls for the University to be both Great and Good,” says Kirt von Daacke, who co-chairs both the Commission on Slavery and The University, and the Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation. “This is a great example of how we can do that.”

MEL holds numerous keys that unlock pathways from the present to the past. For instance:

  • the site is built on approximately an acre of what was once a farm field toiled by enslaved laborers
  • the circumference of the central oval – symbolic of a broken shackle – is exactly 80’, the same as that of the Rotunda on the hill above.
  • the walls of the oval rise to 8’, the height of the original serpentine walls of the Grounds
  • the memorial is constructed of Virginia Mist Granite, quarried in nearby Culpepper, the same material as the Rotunda’s piazza
  • like Maya Lin’s (#mayalin) Vietnam and Civil Rights Memorials, MEL’s walls contain 4,000 “memory” marks, one for each slave counted by historians. Only 558 are named, the rest are denoted by their occupation, such as stonemason, blacksmith, and carpenter
  • in the right light, you can see the eyes of Isabella Gibbons. Born in 1836 and enslaved by the University, Gibbons became a pioneering educator after emancipation.

Her gaze metaphorically observes our actions in the 21st Century

This gorgeous site, at once sacred and accessible, issues a major invitation for all. As both an aesthetic tribute and ineffable reminder, MEL is perhaps the greatest compliment possible for our World Heritage site just steps above.  “It’s gonna outlive me,” says von Daacke. “It will be the foundation of how the University expresses its values into the 21st Century.”