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UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers completed with moment of silence, ceremony

A small group gathers for the completion of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.
A small group gathers for the completion of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.(WVIR)
Updated: Apr. 9, 2021 at 5:16 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia is finally complete. The people that have worked for years to bring it to life marked Friday, April 9, with silence, poetry, and the sound of running water.

A moment of silence and reflection as the University Chapel tolled noon, and then, the water flowed.

“Water could mean resilience, it could mean cleanliness,” Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Community Engagement Committee Co-Chair DaTeasa Gathers said. “I see it as just a renewing.”

As the water flowed, the descendants and onlookers stretched their arms to the sky.

“To bless our ancestors,” Cauline Yates, a descendant of Sally Hemmings, said. “It was our hands held out into the sky, and we looked to the sky to say to the memorial was finally done, and we’ve done it and now here it is for you.”

Celebrating the inaugural “Descendants Day” at the university was an emotional event for all involved.

“Gratitude,” Gathers said, explaining what was going through her mind. “Resilience. Resilience of the ancestors, resilience of the descendants, learning about history. Learning of yourself, because once you know yourself you become a better person.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Yates said. “We’re very glad that it’s being dedicated this weekend.”

The memorial also serves as a bridge to the past, linking enslaved laborers and their descendants who may not have known of their heritage. Like Apostle Sarah Kelley: the university hospital’s first Black chaplain, who only recently learned of her ancestors’ connection to UVA. For that reason, and more, the day was a special one.

“I’ve known DeTeasa and her mother over 40 years,” Kelley said. “I guess it just touched me because her mother’s passed now, and I know her mother would be very proud.”

Organizers are already readying for next year, when the coronavirus pandemic will hopefully be over, and a larger celebration can be held.

“We are looking forward to planning next year’s event where we should all be in person,” Yates explained. “We hope you’ll all come back. We just wanted other people to share it with us.”

The water will flow until then, and long after.

“Hopefully it will be an everlasting flow,” Gathers said. “An everlasting flow of the 4,000 descendants that’s here.”

Organizers say the work is far from over. So far, they’ve identified around 500 enslaved people who labored at UVA. They say the living memorial won’t be truly complete until they are all brought to light.

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