A Memorial to the Enslaved and Exploited
Davidson College has commissioned the creation of With These Hands—A Memorial to the Enslaved and Exploited.
This pioneering work was conceived by renowned artist Hank Willis Thomas, with the architectural firm Perkins&Will. It recognizes and commemorates the contributions of enslaved persons and those whose labor was exploited at the college. The memorial follows years of research and distinctively recognizes what happened on the campus in its first century and beyond. It evokes stretches of Davidson’s history for which the college has, in recent years, taken steps to be accountable in the present.
Enslaved persons, among other work, helped make the bricks that today hold up five historic buildings on the front lawn of campus: Phi and Eu halls, Oak Row, Elm Row and the President’s House. In the century that followed the Civil War, the labor of Black people was exploited through Jim Crow laws and discriminatory policies that the college helped perpetuate.
The memorial will sit in the open space between four of those buildings. The sculpture at the center is a pair of work-worn hands, like those that made the bricks. They cradle both the earth and visitor, creating a space for contemplation and reverence.
The site will serve as a campus destination, inviting a variety of experiences that suggest an unfinished story of both lost historical knowledge and future conversations and understanding.
The memorial grew out of a recommendation by Davidson’s Commission on Race and Slavery for a permanent commemoration. The college’s trustees named a Special Committee on Commemoration to guide this effort.
The committee’s work established these characteristics and priorities:
- Use the College’s archives to acknowledge individuals and family legacies.
- Acknowledge the atrocities, injustices, omissions, and blind spots of the past while also imagining a new future.
- Stir empathy, and focus on perseverance, triumph, and the valuable contributions of those being commemorated.
- Include an interactive element and engage multiple senses.
- Acknowledge what we don’t know and allow for new research and discoveries.
- Focus on the roles and history of Davidson College and the town of Davidson in the institution of slavery.
- Weave together artwork, landscape design, and function so that individuals each draw a unique reaction and that the site also can serve as a setting for campus gatherings or community events.
In 2023, after a call for qualifications, project finalists were selected and a jury identified the most highly qualified artist/architect/team for this opportunity: Hank Willis Thomas with Perkins&Will.
Imagery on this page: Competition concept renderings by Perkins&Will in collaboration with Hank Willis Thomas.
At the heart of this memorial, With These Hands, by Hank Willis Thomas, emerges as a physical manifestation of reverence and gratitude to the enslaved and exploited individuals whose stolen labor Davidson College is indebted to. Marked with years of labor and wear, a pair of hands cradle both the earth and the visitor, creating a space for contemplation and reverence.