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Somber Reflections: Memorial to Enslaved Laborers Fosters 'Hope and Healing'

By: 3BL Media

WSP USA provided mechanical, electrical and plumbing design for University of Virginia memorial recognized with The Architect’s Newspaper’s 2020 Best of Design Award.



A new memorial acknowledging the historical use of slave labor to build and maintain University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus has been attracting attention and heightening racial awareness since its completion in what became a turbulent 2020.

That recognition now includes a top design honor from The Architect’s Newspaper, which honored the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers with its 2020 Best of Design Award. The project additionally earned the publication’s Public & Social Impact award.

The editors of The Architect’s Newspaper said the award-winning memorial “reflected the tumultuous events of the previous 12 months” and addresses “America’s fraught history of race.” It “circumscribes a space for mournful contemplation by making an earthly incision.”

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers formally acknowledges the work and the individual lives of the enslaved African Americans who built and sustained everyday life at the University, from clearing land, digging foundations and performing complex carpentry work for the construction of its properties; to cooking, cleaning and performing other daily chores for professors and students who attended the school prior to the end of the Civil War.

“This memorial honors over 4,000 enslaved people who lived, worked and helped build the University of Virginia,” said Daniel Hurley, WSP USA project manager for the memorial. “This is a major social statement to recognize the wrongs of the past and to provide hope, healing and education for present and future generations.”

WSP provided mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) services for the design scope of the $4 million memorial, in collaboration with Höweler + Yoon Architecture, designer of the new landmark. Additionally, WSP provided solutions for the location of MEP equipment within the project so as to not distract from the aesthetic of the memorial itself.

Historically Significant

The expansive memorial covers more than 58,000 square feet on the University of Virginia campus on a sloping landscape near the Rotunda known as the “Triangle of Grass.” It is located on the footprint of a section of the campus that has been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site – a landmark or area with legal protection due to its cultural and historical significance.

The project began in 2010 as a student-led initiative to develop a memorial at UVA to recognize the history of slaves at the University of Virginia, and planning began in 2013 with the establishment of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. Funding was mostly generated through private donations, though it received a $2.5 million matching grant from the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors in 2018-2019. 

The memorial is constructed of local granite known as Virginia Mist – the same granite as the Rotunda’s upper terrace. It creates a space where students, faculty and visitors can gather, reflect, acknowledge and honor the enslaved laborers who contributed to the University.

The memorial’s concentric rings and a flowing shelf of water symbolize the oppression of slavery, slavery’s broken shackles, and its river paths to freedom. The outer ring is engraved with images of faces taken from historical images from that era, while the innermost ring includes the names of nearly 1,000 known enslaved laborers, as well as placeholders for the additional names that have yet to be determined.

The project was nearing completion and was anticipating an April 2020 completion when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which halted construction and delayed plans for a grand opening celebration that month.

Fortunately, while the pandemic has delayed a grand-opening celebration, WSP was able to adjust to the limitations and complete the project on schedule

“The University of Virginia staff was able to conduct a virtual site visit with the WSP team,” said Hurley, who was joined on the virtual tour by Melissa Sierra, WSP's senior electrical engineer on the project. “As local officials allowed businesses to reopen while following the necessary safety protocols, our counterparts in WSP’s Arlington office were able to conduct the final punch-list, enabling the project to still be completed in 2020.”

While the project is complete and open to the public, a formal dedication ceremony has not yet been held or scheduled, pending a time when university officials determine it will be safe to do so. 

But almost immediately the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers has made an impact on the University of Virginia campus. Mark Warren, WSP managing director, noted that last June the memorial served as the gathering site of a demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement honoring George Floyd, the man who died in May 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.

“During these difficult times, it is our hope that this memorial will help bring hope and healing to people,” Warren said. 

Tanya Adams, WSP national director of inclusion and diversity, shared Warren's appreciation of the importance of bringing the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers to the University of Virginia campus.

“Preserving history and portraying it honestly is so important,” Adams said. “I am proud to be part of a firm that played a role in recognizing the injustice of slavery. WSP believes in the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and equality throughout the industry, with the projects we work on and in the places we live and raise our families.”


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Tweet me: A new memorial acknowledging the historical use of slave labor to build/maintain @UVA’s campus has been heightening racial awareness since its 2020 completion. @WSPUSA provided mechanical, electrical & plumbing design for the memorial.

KEYWORDS: TSX:WSP, WSP USA, University of Virginia, Architect’s Newspaper’s 2020 Best of Design Award


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