This past Monday evening, February 27th, 2017, I attended a Public Forum at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, in Charlottesville, VA, for the proposed “Memorial for Enslaved Laborers at The University of Virginia.” I am keenly interested in this project, because–because I think I have some good ideas for it! And these ideas go back a ways, back to 2004, when I began work on a portrait bust of Thomas Jefferson. After reading Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, by Fawn Brodie, I knew that I would somehow have to incorporate his life as a slave master into the portrait. But how? The answer came in another book: Jefferson at Monticello: Recollections of a Monticello Slave and of a Monticello Overseer.” The Monticello Slave was Isaac Granger Jefferson, whose reminiscences about life at Monticello have been a goldmine for Jefferson scholars. (Isaac provides what is I think the only physical description of Sally Hemings. She was, he said, “mighty handsome, with long straight hair down her back.”) So I created a bust of Isaac, based upon a remarkable daguerreotype, to be exhibited side-by-side with the bust of Jefferson. You can see more about the creation of these two portrait busts in “A Long Arc,” the documentary created by Jim Crawford of Swinging Gate Productions, which is posted on this website.
Something else came out of that little book, Jefferson at Monticello: an idea for a multi-figure bronze sculpture, based upon an episode recalled by Edmund Bacon, the “Monticello Overseer.” I was excited about my idea as a specific and vivid depiction of the enslaved laborers who built The University of Virginia. But there was no opportunity, then, for that sculpture to come into being, and time passed-and now here it is, more than twelve years later!
The Public Forum was attended by perhaps 75-100 people, seated at round tables in a spacious room. The primary focus of the meeting was to present three concepts, one for each of three separate locations on campus, for the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers, developed by the Boston design firm, Howeler + Yoon, along with complimentary landscape designs by Gregg Bleam, a Charlottesville Landscape Architect. Dr. Frank Dukes acted as principal facilitator, and Dr. Mabel O. Wilson provided historical perspective. The presentation lasted about twenty minutes, and was accompanied with slides and commentary. Following this, another Facilitator came to the stage and asked members of the audience to come up with a word or phrase which might encapsulate their response to the presentation, and thoughts about the Enslaved Laborers. I wrote down “nobility of work,” followed by a series of phrases, which I later revised somewhat, and have entitled “Song of the Enslaved Laborer”:
Them bricks I laid, that cornerstone I cut;
This door I hung, its hinge I forged.
Those trees I planted and pruned;
This window sash I framed and fit.
These hands here they made this place,
And bear the marks of all you see.
I am proud of the work I done!
The Q&A session which followed was lively. While several attendees expressed their appreciation for the thoughtful work of the designers and architects, a number of people suggested that something more was needed. One man felt that the design was “lacking in intensity,” another that there was an “incompleteness,” and then went to speak eloquently about the importance of “spiritual songs” to the slaves. A woman on the far side of the room suggested that some bronze figures would make the memorial more “in your face,” and a UVa undergrad advocated for something more “disruptive” to remind students, on a daily basis, of the legacy of slavery. The design team listened intently, and were gracious and understanding in accepting the comments and criticisms. Noting that the memorial was a “process, the team promised to go to work on the designs again.
For more information on the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers at The University of Virginia, go to http://www.virginia.edu/slaverymemorial/