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The Eyes of a Woman Who Was Enslaved Mark This Memorial

By LIDA TUNESI

A memorial that honors the 4,000 people who were enslaved by the University of Virginia (UVA) has won The Architect’s Newspaper 2020 Project of the Year award. Professor Eto Otitigbe of Brooklyn College was part of the design team, in collaboration with Höweler + Yoon, Dr. Mabel O. Wilson of Columbia University, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, and Dr. Frank Dukes of UVA.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers resides in the Triangle of Grass at the university, in Charlottesville. It features a low circular wall inscribed with names of hundreds of the enslaved people and a timeline of slavery in Virginia.

Gazing out from the back side of the granite wall are a haunting pair of eyes carved into the stone. The eyes were designed by Otitigbe to represent a woman named Isabella Gibbons. Gibbons was enslaved at the university, and, once she was free, she became a teacher at the Freedmen’s School in Charlottesville. Otitigbe’s research included reaching out to people in communities of descendants of the enslaved. He based his design of the eyes on a 19th century photograph of Gibbons.

“The enslaved people were denied personhood, and as a result their descendants, some who still live in and around Charlottesville, were denied an opportunity to honor and memorialize them,” Otitigbe told Brooklyn College magazine. “Conversations around this topic can be fraught, tense. We worked to create a space for healing, or protest, a space where change can always be facilitated.”

The project also won the newspaper’s Public and Social Impact category.

Though the memorial’s formal dedication has been postponed because of the pandemic, it has already become a space for gathering and reflection, the newspaper wrote.