On a brisk, sunny Saturday morning at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, descendants of people who were enslaved by the university celebrated their ancestors and themselves.
It was the first Descendants Day in-person reunion for Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa, which last year held virtual with more than 300 participants. Being together on UVa’s Grounds was a powerful feeling.
“We have never been able to take up space on this campus until today,” said DeTeasa Gathers, co-chair of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa. “First of all, we try to make the community feel welcomed in this space. As a community of descendants, we’ve never been welcomed to this space.”
Gathers said more than 100 people attended Saturday’s event in Charlottesville, but there are members of the organization across the country and even overseas.
“I’m just so excited about family connections. That’s what it’s all about to me. We’ve been a grassroots organization working through the pandemic, and I’m just so happy we were able to come in person and finally show who we are,” she said.
The event featured a keynote address by Dr. Shelley Murphy, genealogist and researcher for the UVa Descendant Project. Murphy was hired by the university to research the genealogy of people who were bought, sold and enslaved by UVa. Her goal is to connect with the families of these people.
“The work is important, yet so challenging at the same time. The stories from the institutions must be told. The stories from the descendants must be told,” Murphy said. “It is necessary to reconnect these families. I really believe the ancestors are working through each of us.”
Murphy said it is important to hear stories of their ancestors as human beings.
“We need to tell the stories about them being human; their contributions, their commitments and their resilience,” she said. “They were mamas and daddies, daughters and sons, as well as uncles and aunties, along with the nieces, nephews and cousins.”
Murphy, a descendant of enslaved laborers herself, stumbled upon her own family connections to Charlottesville through her project research. She wants to identify every person enslaved at UVa so other descendants will have the opportunity to learn their family histories.
“Sometimes we only have the first name of the individual, and maybe the name of the slaveholder. It can be challenging. But there is space for 4,000 names on the memorial. There are 600 on there right now. I don’t want to leave anyone out,” Murphy said.
Members of Charlottesville’s Chihamba Dance Troupe performed traditional West African dance and drum music inside the center of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Lillie Williams, director of Chihamba, said the choreography the dancers performed Saturday has a significant meaning.
“The first dance we performed represented breaking from the chains of slavery. All of our dances are traditional. We like the old school. Things have evolved differently, but we stick with the traditional dances, the traditional rhythms,” Williams said.
The dancers finished their performance by inviting audience members to dance together with them in the circle.
“Healing is the meaning of the word chihamba. It’s all about healing people, getting their energy and spirits going and celebrating. Dance is healing,” Williams said.
Attendees also had the chance to share oral histories of their families. Logan Botts, a fourth year student at UVa, is collecting the stories of descendants of enslaved laborers at UVa for a three-year project she is working called “Reflections: Oral Histories at UVa.”
During the event, attendees could record their stories in a colorful mobile recording station on a pickup truck, provided through a partnership with WTJU Radio.
“I’m here mostly networking with members of the descendants community to learn more about their family histories, their experience, and their membership with the descendants community, and to collect some oral history,” Botts said. “It’s really nice to be able to come out today and meet some people that I’ve talked with over Zoom before, and also meet some new people and spread the word about the project.”
While Botts is graduating this year, she hopes people will continue to share their stories through the project.
Gathers said she hopes this event is just the first of many.
“We want to welcome the community to learn about the memorial, especially because some of them haven’t even seen it for the first time,” she said. “We want people to stay connected with the descendants group because our goal is to grow our membership, increase knowledge of our ancestry, and increase awareness that we’re doing this work.”
Descendants of people enslaved at UVa are encouraged to connect and find out more about the organization by visiting www.descendantsuva.org or visiting @descendantsUVA on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Descendants who are interested in connecting with Murphy and researching their family genealogy can contact her by email at email@example.com.