On March 3rd, 1865, Union troops rode into Charlottesville, and in their wake many of Albemarle County’s 14,000 enslaved individuals declared themselves free. Since that fateful day, descendants of people enslaved in Charlottesville have been celebrating March 3rd as the anniversary of their ancestors’ liberation. In 2017, the Charlottesville City Council officially recognized March 3rd as an annual holiday and named it “Liberation and Freedom Day.” I had the pleasure of attending the Liberation Day celebrations this year and was treated to a reading of “My Serpentine,” a poem by Jayla Hart, and an extraordinary performance by the Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters.
After the events of Liberation Day, I have been thinking about the memorialization of Black history and the lasting impacts of uncovering and sharing enslaved people’s stories. In my role as an intern with the Law Library’s Special Collections Department, I have spent time sifting through newspaper articles, letters, and deeds trying to uncover more about the lives of people enslaved by the Duke family, who lived in the home known as Sunnyside just behind the Law School. I have read through Duke family documents housed in the Albert & Shirley Small Collections Library on Central Grounds and in Law Special Collections. I also visited the Albemarle County Circuit Courthouse to examine Duke family deeds and wills. Although the existence of enslaved people is evident in the built environment and the family histories of Charlottesville descendants, many of the historical documents about enslaved people were written by those who held them in bondage. Because the enslaved were barred from learning to read and write, their stories were told for them. As evidenced by accounts like R.T.W. Duke Jr’s Recollections, the enslaved were simply “servants” that were treated well and had no reason to seek their freedom. A substantial amount of the information gleaned about enslaved individuals is recovered through persistent and intentional searching because the enslaved were not portrayed holistically and authentically by most white authors.
Seeing members of DEC-UVA and the Gullah Geechee come together on March 3rd in veneration of their ancestors’ lives was beautiful, and I feel privileged to have born witness to the celebration. Liberation Day marks a time to hold space, to remember enslaved people’s resilience and resistance in the face of unimaginable violence and oppression.
Enslaved people’s history is American history, and only when it is embraced can we begin to reckon with the weight of slavery’s aftermaths. Divorcing slavery from the American landscape is impossible, especially at this University. Everything UVA is exists as a result of the forced labor of Black people. This institution owes its successes, its landscape, and its prominence to the lives of those that were enslaved here, and this acknowledgement has only come recently. Faculty and staff here have been doing invaluable work to learn about the University’s history of slavery, and I am proud to say I have worked alongside Addie Patrick (Library Coordinator) and Randi Flaherty (Head of Law Special Collections) on the Historical Landscape of North Grounds project.
My involvement with the project started in September 2022, after Addie and Randi were awarded a Jefferson Trust grant to hire an intern and fund interpretive signage about the Albemarle County Poor House and Charlottesville’s first barbecue grounds, sites situated along the Rivanna Trail behind the Law School. Originally, my work focused on researching the Poor House’s residents and the formerly enslaved people that worked to ensure the barbecues’ success, as well as how best to share those stories on our interpretive signs. One of the barbecue chefs, Caesar Young, was enslaved by the Duke family and continued to work for them after emancipation. He was well-known for his culinary talent alongside John Gilmore, another Black chef who lived and worked in the Georgetown neighborhood close to the Law School. Other chefs included Mandy and Juba Carter, enslaved by the Garth family of Birdwood, and Willis and Robert Fortune. They were all instrumental in the daily lives of prominent Charlottesville families, and the Historical Landscape of North Grounds project is working to bring them, along with other people enslaved on North Grounds, to the forefront. In order to continue this work in conversation with the descendants of the people whose lives we are studying, we have shifted our focus to connecting with the members of DEC-UVA. This semester, my work has been focused on assisting in outreach to the Descendants community, so the project can be a collaborative effort going forward.
Historical storytellers like the Gullah Geechee and organizations like DEC-UVA value Black history and are working to challenge racist, revisionist notions of enslavement. In the U.S., education about slavery is increasingly being sanitized to assuage white guilt, or it is dismissed as useless entirely. In the face of this censorship in education and the backlash against Africana Studies, publicizing the truth about slavery is even more pressing. Liberation and Freedom Day flies in the face of dominant, white supremacist narratives that claim slavery was not oppressive or violent and that we should feel nostalgic for the days of the antebellum South. The Historical Landscape of North Grounds project challenges the narrative that UVA’s North Grounds lacks relevant history and that what happened on this land is irrelevant to the University’s institutional history. Although UVA only purchased the property which became North Grounds in 1963, Law Special Collections recognizes the history of enslavement on North Grounds as part of UVA’s history. Though the University itself did not enslave the people that lived and labored on this land, the institution is still culpable. And it is of paramount importance that UVA continues to acknowledge this history and work with descendants, faculty, staff, and students to tell the full truth of enslavement.
This article was written by Chloe Leon who interned with the Historical Landscape of North Grounds Project during the 2022-2023 academic year. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2023 with a B.A. in African American and African Studies.
Featured image: UVA Law alumni barbecue hosted at Sunnyside, circa 1900. Two Black chefs sit in the foreground of the image by the barbecue pit.