Universities, Slavery, Public Memory and the Built Landscape

From October 18-21, the Slave Dwelling Project partnered with the University of Virginia President's Commission on Slavery and the University to present a symposium entitled Universities, Slavery, Public Memory and the Built Landscape as part of the University's bicentennial events.  The event aimed to broaden conceptions of the university histories, introduce dimensions of moral accountability to the study of campus spaces across the country, and study implications of these threads for the built environment.

In the opening address "Ghost Values and the Remains of Slavery," Daina Ramey Berry highlighted the commodification of black bodies even after death through the medical domestic cadaver trade in the 19th century.  Her concept of soul value highlights the inner life of black Americans that resists and transcends the forces of commodification and dehumanization facing African-Americans, even as they reverberate into our present.  Following the keynote address, the Slave Dwelling Project led a facilitated conversation on the Lawn, and the largest overnight sleepover in the organization's history in Garden IX.

The following two days of events included plenary panels on "Slavery at UVA", "Institutions Confronting the Legacy of Slavery", "Connecting with Community and Descendants", and "Universities and Reparations".  These panels convened a combination of descendants of enslaved people, student organizers, genealogists, scholars, university administrators, and representatives from historic sites.  Four sets of breakout panels presented many facets of the intersections between the histories of the enslaved people, American higher education, and the built environment, and the implications of these ties for our society at large.  The areas of research covered in these panels ranged from the place of performance and art in the process of exhuming and wrestling with difficult histories, to methods of historical research, to the role of descendant communities in dialogues about the interpretation of history, and the ties between enslaved and Native American communities in Virginia.

One of the most moving parts of the Symposium proceedings included a commemoration ceremony at an African-American cemetery on University grounds.  The evening event included vocal performance by the Union Run Baptist Church Choir, a statement by Rep. Delores McQuinn of the Virginia House of Delegates on the current reverberations of the legacies of historical injustice, a poem by Brenda Marie Osbey commissioned for the occasion, and a candle light procession to the burial grounds.

The final day of proceedings included site tours of MonticelloAsh Lawn Highland, and Montpelier.  Each of these historic sites are at different stages of their work with the understanding and reckoning with their involvement with slavery.  Monticello continues to expand its research and interpretation, a process which began in the early 1990s, and Montpelier opened a new exhibit, the Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017 on the history of slavery at Montpelier and central Virginia.  The program closed with a second overnight stay at Montpelier with the Slave Dwelling Project.

While the programs and events explored many current areas of study, some of the most compelling questions raised by the Symposium were those left unanswered.  Friday's plenary panel on reparations highlighted the solely symbolic nature of many conciliatory efforts by educational institutions, and discussed what real material or economic reparations might entail for all black Americans still living with the disadvantages conferred by continued racism.  Some breakout panels, like one entitled "Engaging the Community: Slavery and Breaking the Town/Gown Barrier" ended in lively and pointed critiques of University of Virginia’s process in design of its proposed Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, traditional modes of design, community engagement, and scholarship.  Participants questioned the efficacy of historically white institutions in examining and repairing their own legacies.  Audience members asked, why is it that mostly white academics seem to be building successful careers on the study of America's racial past?  With the increased visibility of intellectuals of color, what does it mean that these new perspectives predominantly benefit historically discriminatory schools?  And how do universities plan to address the disproportionately white demographic composition of their student bodies, and move toward true inclusion of the students of color who do attend? 

For the Center for Cultural Landscapes, the events raised a further set of implications in terms of the constructed environment, and Center’s mission of collaboration in research on and stewardship of cultural landscapes. How does an organization like this one seek to make visible narratives that challenge the status quo and expand the types of landscapes seen as worthy of preservation and critical examination? What happens when symptoms of subjugation are part of the legacy encoded in a cultural landscape?  And what responsibility does a landscape researcher or designer have to confront histories of abuse, displacement, and systematic erasure in a world that often sees historic sites as places of celebration and conservation? Finally, who should the Center seek to collaborate with?  Are professionals and organizations the only possible partners, or should the center extend its collaborative outlook to lay researchers and family historians in considering the contested meanings of landscapes within the cultural milieu of American life?  While these questions hung tensely in the air, it was clear that as the introductory brief for this event stated, this symposium "set the stage for future work" in scholarship, politics, and the built environment.