A Modernist Memorial

The University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers has a modernist approach that suppresses any metaphysical impulse.

The University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers is located on Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo by Robert Knopes/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The inauguration of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington 40 years ago marked the advent of a new, anti-monumental idiom in the nation’s commemorative art. The chevron-shaped “The Wall” created by Maya Lin provoked anger among Vietnam veterans because it wasn’t a traditional monument that celebrated the bravery of soldiers who served their country in an unpopular conflict. Inscribed with the names of America’s more than 58,000 war dead listed in the chronological order of their deaths, Lin’s wall had nothing to do with martial valor. It was about losing. It was all about healing. In other words, its anti-monumental nature was linked to a therapeutic goal.

Even so, veterans disinclined to get with the therapeutic program–many of whom were service-academy graduates–had to be mollified with Frederick Hart’s realist sculpture, Three Servicemen, which was added to the memorial precinct in 1984, along with a bronze flagpole bearing the insignia of the nation’s armed forces.

But Lin’s monument of reflective granite was a huge hit with the public. In 1994, the New York Times‘s religion correspondent hailed her wall as “something like a sacred shrine,” noting that the memorial was attracting more visitors than the majestic monument to Abraham Lincoln close by. This was not the case many years ago. It is because of how the novelty of the wall has diminished and the number of people who have close connections to its names. In 2021 the Lincoln Memorial received 5.8 million visitors, the Vietnam 3.6 million.

The anti-monumental mindset has survived, but the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Labourers to Lin’s Wall is a huge debt. Completed in 2020, year of the civil disorder arising from the death of George Floyd, the UVA memorial is situated at the foot of a grassy declivity a short distance from Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda and Lawn. Lin’s wall, which is embedded into the National Mall’s landscape, is the memorial for enslaved laborers. The outer concentric ring is a freestanding wall. It is adorned with several thousand small gashes or “memory markings” that correspond to slaves who worked at the university before the Civil War ended. Five hundred seventy-seven of the marks are accompanied by names, another 311 by indications of kinship or trade, and the rest await identifications.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982). Photo by Catesby Leigh

The Vietnam wall rises in height when the visitor descends towards the vertex. It is approximately ten feet high. The enslaved laborers memorial is not accessible from below. However, the outer wall (a ring with an opening at its entrance) rises symmetrically to eight feet above the ground. Its rear elevation matches the entrance’s height. While the inner ring is broken at the memorial entry, it increases in height and serves as a bench to contemplate the wall. It is separated from the pavement by stone. A narrow stream of water runs behind the bench and crosses a timeline that highlights specific events in the university’s slave population. Some of these depict brutal or cruel mistreatment, while others include historical developments concerning the “peculiar” institution.

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The inner ring surrounds a circular of grass that was designed as a performing space. This makes the memorial as well as its setting a sort of amphitheater. The memorial’s configuration has been described as symbolizing a broken shackle and the “ring dance” slaves engaged in, but you have to be told that. Its generally abstract form is rather baffling to the uninitiated. Concrete-framed panels made of granite are scored vertically so that they create deep shadows. The meaning behind these shadows is still a mystery. Also, the panels have a subtle faceted pattern that could suggest clouds or mountains. It is possible that the Blue Ridge’s proximity might explain the motif.

Finally, when the light is just right, the discordantly photographed etching of two eyes appears on the exterior wall. They are not located at the highest point of the wall, but off-center. These eyes were taken from an image of Isabella Gibbons (enslaved cook, who became a teacher in a school for freedmen). The aqueous timeline

contains her bitter memories.

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 the mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Do we forget that hundreds of people from our race were killed by these horrible cruelty? We haven’t, and we won’t ever forget.

This is a healing memorial that seeks to heal historical wounds caused by slavery and to provide a space for people to come together to challenge “systemic racism”. In formal terms, perhaps the best thing that can be said about the memorial is that it doesn’t sprawl, as our latter-day memorials tend to do. It’s spatially defined.

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia. Howeler + Yoon, architects. Photo by Catesby Leigh

But its simple formal vocabulary is much less efficient than that of the Vietnam wall. The former doesn’t raise any questions. As the wall rises higher, you descend on a sidewalk that runs parallel to it. Your horizon becomes narrower as the pavement shrinks. The inscribed names are visible, as well as your reflection in the shiny granite. The vertex is the highest point of the panel, and where war’s victims are most prominent. As you climb from there, the horizon broadens, with either the Lincoln Memorial, or the Washington Monument dominating your view, depending on which direction you walk in. Lin didn’t intend to make this march along the pavement. This was made necessary by severe drainage issues.

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However, the memorial for enslaved laborers’ baffling vertical scores and cloud-like faceting along with the eyes (knife cut) and memory marks itself (knife cuttings), are all puzzlesome. Visitors will be left scratching their heads by the divergent treatment of the exterior and interior surfaces of the outer walls. The exterior may even register as an unusually polysemic shell. Why is water running across the timeline of the inner ring? It recalls both the transatlantic crossings and riverine routes of slaves fleeing from bonds. It seems to be a trick used to improve a design that is too simplistic. Even though it was used on a very small scale, the rivulet reminds me of the moat that runs around Hyde Park’s large, oval-shaped memorial to Princess Diana. The moat that surrounds the larger area of turf was created to provide contrast in the water’s flowing textures. It was a silly way to express the turbulent and tranquil parts of Princess Diana’s life. But, we have to explain the symbolism. The memorial to enslaved workers makes much more sense than Diana.

The Charlottesville Memorial is not in the historical precinct at the UVA campus where it is located. It isn’t as beautiful as Jefferson’s Lawn and Rotunda. I suspect that if enslaved tradesmen–whether they were stonecutters, brick-masons, blacksmiths, or carpenterswho helped build Jefferson’s “academical village” could rise from the dead to inspect the memorial intended to honor them, they might wonder: Why is it not beautiful like the buildings that are the fruits of our toil, buildings that have stood the test of time for two centuries?

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“Memory marks” at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Photo by Catesby Leigh

Would not those enslaved tradesmen vastly prefer to be honored by a memorial conceived within the same classical idiom as the University’s Frank Hume Memorial Fountain, despite the inscription on its enclosing exedra–traditionally known as the Whispering Wall–honoring a businessman and state legislator who served in the Confederate army? The university removed the Hume memorial’s inscribed faces stones. This was part of an effort to remove as much evidence of UVA’s involvement, Jim Crow, slaveowners and the Confederacy as possible. These will be soon replaced by blank stones.

The Memorial to Enslaved Labourers is an intellectually sophisticated artifact. Classic tradition on the other side is the result of a deep, civilizing instinct. It’s a desire to imagine structure and a way of living that goes beyond current identity politics obsessions. This idealizing, metaphysical impulse is evident in the Rotunda’s beautiful porticoes, Lawn and Lawn. However, it is absent from anti-monuments like that of the enslaved workers’ memorial. The memorial’s modernist design, however, suppresses this metaphysical impulse. Today’s anti-monument has a high purpose: to heal the wounds from the past. It also pretends that it is a place for more educated community engagement. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.

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