Educator, author and activist Mabel O. Wilson visited the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning this past Friday to give a lecture entitled “Memory/Race/Nation: The Politics of Modern Memorials” as the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium guest lecturer this year. Wilson currently teaches architectural history and theory at Columbia University and performs research as a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies.
“The limits of traditional (architectural) practice couldn’t answer all of the questions I had,” said Wilson on her involvement in research and scholarly work on top of her design work.
Recently, Wilson became fascinated by Alexander Weheliye’s “Habeas Viscus,” a book on the centrality of race in what it means to be human. Wilson’s biggest takeaway from the book was Weheliye’s concept of “racial assemblages”: the historical outcome of the impact of race on our social order.
“What we take for public never has been. There have always been exclusions,” said Wilson.
Architecture has always been entangled with racial assemblages, from the design of slave ships to maximize the quantity of slaves that could make it to the New World to the design of contemporary public housing. This has never been more evident than today in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia (where Wilson attended for undergrad) and the “Unite the Right” Rally of August 2017, also known as the Charlottesville riots.
The University of Virginia (UVA) was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. In archived letters written by Jefferson at the time to friends and colleagues, Jefferson made it clear that he wanted strictly neoclassical architecture for the university to emulate the high times of democratic Rome and Greece. What wasn’t spelled out quite so clearly in those letters was that, along with these ideas of an architecture of justice, liberty and equality was a history of slave building and the subsequent rejection of non-whites from those spaces.
The entirety of UVA’s campus built prior to the abolishment of slavery was made by slaves. The same can be said for Virginia’s state capitol, also designed by Jefferson based on the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France. In the central hall of the capitol, Jefferson wanted to dedicate a statue of George Washington so as to, among other reasons, instill the space with a sense of “American virtue.” Such virtue at the time, unfortunately, did not include being Black.
While many dismiss slave owners’ support of or at least tacit acceptance of slavery as the result of the feelings of their time, Jefferson had some very particular problems with Black people. Truthfully, he was viscerally and visually appalled by them. He believed skin color was of divine causation, and that those bestowed with Black skin were inherently “dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
So it’s no wonder that, in response to the “Unite the Right” rally of August, Black Lives Matter covered Jefferson’s statue at the center of campus with garbage bags and signs reading “TJ is a racist rapist” and “Black Lives Matter, Fuck White Supremacists.” The students wanted UVA to remove its historical connection to racism as many schools across the country had been doing since the 2000s. Since the protests, no news has surfaced as to the statue’s removal, although the Charlottesville city council did vote 3-2 in favor of the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee at the city’s center back in 2017 (although for various reasons it remains up today).
However, Wilson’s talk was less about the logistics of removing existing memorials and more about humanizing the slaves of Charlottesville’s past by giving them their very own memorial. While about 4,000 slaves worked for UVA in its early history, only several hundred of their names are known due to mere lack of acknowledgment in the university’s historical record. At the end of her talk, Wilson unveiled renderings she had been working on of a planned Memorial to Enslaved Laborers just east of the campus’s central rotunda.
The memorial is designed as a ring of Virginia mist granite that slants down to envelope a grassy area surrounded by a mote. Along the inner wall of the granite, 4,000 blank spaces are allotted for names but only several hundred are filled. Engraved in the stone at the bottom of the mote are significant historical events of the era of slavery, many of which were brutally violent.
Despite this confrontation of the cold, hard truth, the monument offers hope above all else. The water that gently wafts through the mote symbolizes the passage of time and the escape from the horrific events of the past. The grassy area at the center is a peaceful place of union where students and faculty may come together and relax, thankful that we’re better than we once were while acknowledging that we’re not perfect yet.