The Monument to Enslaved Laborers

The blue-gray stone panels begin their ascent at less than ankle height. Arranged in a ring, they’re marked with horizontal notches that sometimes bear a name or a profession, and they increase in number as each panel reaches up. Eventually, all anyone can see are the notches. Each one represents an enslaved laborer at the University, and one of them bears the name Tom. I didn’t expect to see it, the same name as the founder of UVA, appear in yet another place on grounds, but it did.

This Tom was not born into wealth or even freedom, unlike the other, nor would he have ever been able to reap the benefits of his own work—stolen from him by the crime of slavery. Had he been free, I don’t know if he would ever have been honored with anything other than familial remembrance. He may have been forgotten entirely to history, and I wish that he could have been. I wish that he was not enslaved, but free to have done as he pleased. Instead, a stone was gouged at roughly knee-height and he is acknowledged, but not truly remembered.

His name is not alone. Scores of notches surround it. Each is a human life whose misfortune came from the cruelty and ignorance of other humans in a paragon of learning and civilization—the University of Virginia. I belong to one of the oldest organizations on grounds, the Washington Literary Society, which was founded in 1831. At the outbreak of the civil war, my predecessors and fellow Virginians gave the treasury of the society and their lives to support the vision of continued racial inequity referred to as the Confederacy. The end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery at the University, but it would be a mistake to say that it was also the end of racial inequity. An African American would not even enroll until 1950, and it was only with a court order overriding the Board of Visitors. Racial inequity continues to this day, both at the University and in the broader community of Charlottesville.

The monument reminds us of the ability of well educated people to make grievous and violent errors, en masse, for hundreds of years. It reflects a deserved stain on the legacy of the University community, but it also reflects our ability to right ourselves, even if we have never truly stood upright. Thinking of the unknown ways that we err, and the disdain future generations will have of us, is a natural consequence of visiting the monument, walking around it, and finishing the short walk by looking critically at where we have come from—at where we are. It is a simple, necessary, prompt to reflect; the burden is now on our shoulders. Our errors will affect people just like us.

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