Upon discovering a cemetery of enslaved people on their historic Albemarle County farm, John Macfarlane (Darden ’79) and his wife, Dudley, knew they had a unique opportunity to reveal a story long hidden from view. After painstakingly restoring the overgrown burial place, the Macfarlanes vowed to gain a better understanding of the farm’s full history in the context of the souls laid to rest on a hillside marked by 153 gravestones.
“We didn’t want to ignore the many contributions of these people in the development of the farm—and of the nation,” said John Macfarlane, a current member of the Board of Visitors. “They were farmers, herdsmen, blacksmiths, horsemen, millers, cooks, seamstresses, and laborers who contributed to the community they lived in.”
The University of Virginia is undertaking a similar historical reassessment. Last June, the board approved the design and construction of a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia. The memorial will commemorate the contributions of enslaved people who worked to build and sustain the University in its early years. Developed by a design team with input from University experts and important constituents, such as students and community members, the memorial will rise from an open green area of the historic Grounds east of Brooks Hall and across from the Corner.
Surrounding the memorial with trees recalls the African-American tradition of holding meetings in clearings. The site is intended as a place for students to gather and where ongoing commemorative events—such as performances or classes—would be held.
Designed by the Boston architecture firm of Höweler + Yoon, the granite memorial is an open concentric ring with the same diameter as the Rotunda. Subtle images of faces from period photographs will grace the outer wall, while the innermost wall will bear 973 known names of the enslaved and include placeholders for the estimated 4,000 names not yet known. Inside, a central grassy area will face a circular stone bench, where a nearby ring of water will spill over a shelf inscribed with a timeline related to the history of slavery at the University and the nation. In time, a grove of trees will grow up around the memorial, providing a place for quiet reflection, teaching, and public gatherings.
I believe that our work must continue beyond the building of the memorial to fully understand our failings, learn from them, and ensure that we avoid such errors in the future.”
In his role as a board member, Macfarlane leapt at the chance to spearhead fundraising for the memorial. “I see this campaign as a platform to help frame the narrative for dealing with complicated aspects of our history and in doing so, lead the national conversation on this topic,” he said.
The memorial’s estimated $6 million cost will be raised from private funds. The project has received several six-figure gifts and a generous matching gift from a Houston-based alumnus.
Ultimately, Macfarlane hopes the memorial will spur plans to endow continuing research and promote student understanding and involvement. “I believe that our work must continue beyond the building of the memorial to fully understand our failings, learn from them, and ensure that we avoid such errors in the future,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity for supporters of the Jeffersonian Grounds Initiative and the University as a whole.”
For more information on the memorial and giving opportunities, visit giving.virginia.edu/jgi/memorial.