In 2016, students at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland made a harrowing discovery while performing a routine archeological survey on the proposed site of the school’s new athletic complex. Unearthed domestic slave artifacts, including tobacco pipes, pottery, and even shackles, revealed that the land that the school hoped to transform into an area of play and recreation had once been home to victims of gross injustice. This discovery aligned with the recent revelation that the university, which was founded in 1840, had indeed owned slaves.
In order to honor the lives of those imprisoned on the grounds of Saint Mary’s, the university put forth an RFQ for the design of a memorial to commemorate this buried past. A proposal titled “From Absence to Presence” by Houston-based RE:site Studio won favor with the myriad administrators, faculty, students, residents, and government officials who weighed in on the selection.
RE:site co-founders Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, in conjunction with project managers at Metalab Studio, proposed a small wooden cabin, measuring 22 ft by 15 ft, clad with irregular mirrored panels. The cabin assumes the form of the traditional slave quarters that are likely to have existed on the site less than 200 years ago. The mirrors serve to immerse spectators in the exhibit, inviting a moment of both literal and figurative reflection upon the structure’s historical connotations.
The artists pushed the proposal a step further by inviting poet Quenton Baker, whose work focuses on the afterlife of slavery, to compose a piece representing the history of slavery within the region. Baker combed through an archive of 243 runaway slave advertisements — often the only written records of personhood for enslaved African Americans — to create an erasure poem, which is inscribed along the mirrored panels. The poem borrows the devastating language within the ads, erasing, combining, and reconfiguring it into a powerful ode to the slaves of southern Maryland. The literary erasure is communicated physically by means of wooden planks that break up the writing along the mirrored facades. “An immersive experience such as this commemoration is asking for a dialogue and attempts to give the enslaved peoples a voice to tell their own story through Quenton’s poetry,” says Allbritton.
At night, LED lights from within the cabin illuminate the surrounding fields with Baker’s text, creating a vigil to the people who were once held captive on that very ground. The light also serves to remind visitors of the vibrant lives that existed within the four walls of such cabins — the only spaces where slaves could experience any degree of freedom.
Norman Lee noted the serendipitous culmination of this four-year project during a time of such serious national reflection upon racial equality. “We are really excited that this project can serve as a physical representation of many of the conversations and wake-up calls going on around the country.” The studio has a number of other social justice public artworks well underway, including a memorial to victims of racial violence in downtown Dallas.
Sophie Aliece Hollis is TA’s editorial assistant.