The south end of the UVA Lawn at night

Enslaved on Grounds: Slavery and the Experiences of Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia

Date & Time

September 4, 2020 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm EDT





Over 4,000 enslaved people helped to build, work the Grounds, and serve the students and faculty of the University of Virginia. During the early years of the University, these bondsmen and bondswomen prepared and served food, cleaned living quarters, and shoveled snow. They worked in skilled positions as stonemasons, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Enslaved men and women ultimately created the environment to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the Academical Village. For over forty years, the University’s enslaved laborers endured the privations of enslaved life while working to construct one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. Historians have begun to explore the experiences of enslaved people in the early years at the University of Virginia. The recently completed Memorial to Enslaved Laborers goes a long way in recognizing the contributions of the enslaved people owned by the University and members of the University community. Professor Justene Hill Edwards will discuss the experiences of the enslaved laborers whose work was fundamental to the University of Virginia during the nineteenth century. The complicated lives of the University’s enslaved laborers reflected the evolution of slavery in Virginia during a period of dramatic social and economic change, from the University’s founding in 1819 to the Civil War.

 In partnership with


Justene Hill Edwards

Assistant Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia

Justene Hill Edwards is a scholar of African-American history, specializing in the history of slavery and the history of capitalism in the United States. She received her doctorate in history from Princeton University, holds an MA in African New World studies from Florida International University, and a BA in Spanish from Swarthmore College.

Hill Edwards’ forthcoming book is Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina (March 2021, Columbia University Press). Unfree Markets shows that enslaved people engaged in the types of economic activities that characterized capitalism during the period of legal slavery in America; however, for enslaved people, the capitalist enterprise did not equal freedom. Instead, their investments in economic enterprise served to reinforce the bonds of their enslavement.