Catching the Shadow

The ‘Kitty’ Foster Memorial

Words by Kasey Roper. Photos by Riley Walsh.

“At this place, on the site of Catherine Foster’s home, this ‘Shadow Catcher’ links the visible with the unseen even as it pulls the eyes to the sky; it creates a shadowy, grid-like outline of the house that once stood at this location,” reads a plaque directly outside the Shadow Catcher Memorial honoring the household of Foster, a free black woman who bought the property in 1833.

The metal structure is between Nau Hall and Olson Student Health, almost directly behind what is now New Cabell Hall and Old Cabell Hall. There are cylindrical metal poles holding up the “roof” of the memorial — a collection of thin, flat metal beams that criss-cross over the ground above what used to be the home of Catherine “Kitty” Foster and her family. These structures cast a shadow in the shape of the house, reminding us of its presence.

However, the history of the Foster Site was largely unknown prior to 1993. It was only when construction workers beginning to expand a parking lot where Nau Hall stands discovered evidence of burials — coffins and remains — that the history of the land was evaluated. The remains were left undisturbed, but the historic investigation began.

“That was the beginning of the consciousness of the Foster family,” said Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect.

A task force spearheaded by the Department of Anthropology and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro- American and African Studies was formed to do initial archeological and historical research into the site. The team determined that the University had an obligation to further investigate the site for historical and local significance. Rivanna Archeological Services, a local firm run by two alumni of the University, was brought in to complete a formal archaeological survey, which was estimated to cost somewhere between $50,000 and $150,000 in the task force’s original notes. These records can be found in the Special Collections Library at Peabody Hall.

What initial archaeological and historical research discovered — buttons, thimbles, dolls, cobblestones, bowls and more — revealed the life of a free black seamstress and her family.  

Rivanna Archeological Services’ work led to the Foster Site being added to the Virginia Landmarks Register for archeology as well as the National Register for Historic Places.

Foster started her business working as a seamstress and launderer for students and faculty of the University, which was a job previously done mostly by enslaved laborers behind the Pavilions. In the 19th century, laundry was not as simple as it is today — rather than tossing clothes into a machine and coming back to toss them into another machine an hour later, washing clothes was a very labor-intensive, all-day task. Workers sorted clothes, carried buckets of water, built fires to boil the water, stirred and washed each large load of laundry, scrubbed each individual piece of clothing, rinsed the clothes, rung out extra water from them by hand, hung them to dry and occasionally mended tears and sewed buttons onto the fabric.

The entire design of the original Foster Site — originally known as the Venable Lane Site — was directed toward these laundering practices. There is evidence of a large cobbled work area near the house to prevent the ground from becoming muddy while working with large amounts of water.

Foster was an important presence just south of the University during its formative years. Not only was she an entrepreneur, but she was a free land-owning black woman as well. During the 1830’s, it was rare for African American women to own property, even in upper Southern states like Virginia. Foster purchased 2 ⅛ acres of land in 1833. Three generations of Fosters — all headed by women — lived on and improved the land, even renting it out to tenants, until 1906, when it was sold to white land developers.

In the early 20th century, the University purchased land around the Lawn in an attempt to hide the black community.

“Up to the 1890s, it is a neighborhood that is mixed in terms of who lives there,” said Kirt von Daacke, co-chair of both the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation. “It’s not all free, it’s not all enslaved, not all black, not all white.”

As the Jim Crow Era of segregation solidified, the neighborhood became predominantly black.

This community was vital to the functioning of the University because enslaved and minimally-paid laborers alike built and maintained Grounds. This was not by accident. The opening of the University in 1825, von Daacke said, attracted a diverse group of workers who settled just south of the Lawn in what is referred to as “Canada.”

The term Canada appears in census reports from the 1850s as well as in notes from Board of Visitors’ meetings during the same time frame. The exact origin and meaning of the nickname Canada is unknown. Some theorize that it pays homage to the country that housed runaway slaves prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Others argue that it is a degrading term meant to emphasize the different, foreign nature of these “other” people who supported the University.

“Canada is a kind of a derisive reference to free people who [the University faculty and students] think really should be enslaved,” von Daacke said.

The Fosters lived in Canada — they’re listed as residents of it in census records — and thus had deep ties to the community and the people living there. The 12 remains found during construction were initially thought to be part of a Foster family graveyard, but as more remains were found — 32 in all — researchers realized that it was more likely a community graveyard.

Canada remained a community that housed those who supported the functioning of the University. However, just as a shadow changes its composition throughout the course of a day, the community’s composition shifted from one of a largely mixed neighborhood to a predominantly black neighborhood over the course of the nineteenth century.

This was difficult because Canada was not University-owned property, so the University really had no control over the interactions students had with the community.

The University saw the community as a “pest hole,” according to von Daacke, and sought to limit University students’ involvement with it.

When choosing between three separate designs for the South Lawn — only one of which closed off the Lawn — the Board of Visitors decided on the one that closed off the Lawn. The result of that decision is Old Cabell Hall, which New Cabell Hall was eventually built around. These buildings would have blocked sight of and access to Canada from the University as well.

The relationship between residents of Canada and the University is complicated because of racism, white supremacy and mutual dependence. The University needed residents to function, just as the residents need the University for work. Students also relied on Canada for products and activities they were prohibited from doing on Grounds.

For example, Canada was where students went to drink alcohol, gamble and interact with their enslaved servants, who were not allowed to live on Grounds. They also went to Canada to practice shooting their firearms.

Additionally, residents of Canada were employed by the University for various tasks, including cobbling, cooking, cleaning and more.

Von Daacke explained how this tension between the residents of Canada and the University — both free and enslaved — transferred to working at the University.

“To take those jobs is to require that [the residents of Canada] interact with — on a daily basis — hundreds of white would-be masters and young U.Va. students who are in the middle of identity formation as the master class, who feel very comfortable treating every person of color they meet as an enslaved person and using violence to dominate them,” von Daacke said.

Interactions with the University, therefore, did not come without risks for the residents of Canada.

The Shadow Catcher Memorial represents the story of a woman who stood in the face of racism and white supremacy, took advantage of several economic opportunities and succeeded in creating an established, private home for herself and her family for generations.

“The [memorial was built as] recognition that this is really kind of an amazing story,” Hogg said. “She’s a free black woman in the 1830s in Charlottesville. She had enough money to purchase that property when many of the people around her were renting, and she and her family managed to own the property for 75 years.”

He concluded by calling Foster “an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Yet the memorial also represents the enduring Canada community, a place of interracial coexistence as well as a crucial part of understanding the University’s relationship with the larger Charlottesville area. This is where the University’s interest was peaked when initial investigations into the site were ongoing. Not only were the Foster Site and the Canada community important to the development of the University, but they were also important to the complex tale of slavery, racism, freedom and the tightrope walked in between.

If the memorial is a literal shadow, how can we catch it?

Upon first glance, the site does not declare its significance loudly, as the Berlin Wall outside Alderman Library does. Second-year nursing student Rosie Ix passed by the Shadow Catcher on her way to class in McLeod Hall.

“I didn’t realize this was a memorial,” Ix said. “I guess I’m always walking through here just trying to get somewhere.”

Lack of awareness about the site raises questions about the University’s efforts to make its history known — especially its history tied to racism and slavery. Von Daacke explained that the University has increased its efforts to make its history with racism and slavery transparent. The Shadow Catcher Memorial, he suggests, is not well known because of the design of the South Lawn.

Jefferson Park Avenue divides Nau and Gibson Hall from Central Grounds, and students typically use a bridge to travel between the two areas. The memorial is located on the Nau and Gibson side, away from the bridge, so students are not typically positioned to walk past the Shadow Catcher Memorial. Conversely, the Berlin Wall Memorial is in Central Grounds, where many students, faculty, locals and visitors alike have more opportunities to walk past it.

Matilda Olbin, a third-year exchange student from Sweden studying Sociology, is not an expert on the memorial, but is generally interested in history. She thinks memorials allow history to be interpreted and not just lectured or rehearsed.

“It’s more solid, I guess you can make your own idea about it,” Olbin said. “If someone tells you about it, it’s gonna be their story.”

To Olbin, it is more inviting to experience history in the present. That is what the Shadow Catcher is trying to evoke — a visual perceived differently by each passerby in each moment.

Even in the early stages of the creation of the Foster Site, the Charlottesville community was actively involved in the conversation of what to do and how. Meetings were held to receive feedback from the community, and press releases were given to update the community on archeological findings and decisions, such as the decision to halt construction for the parking lot until further research could be done.

The University is still engaged with the Charlottesville community and thinks critically about its relationship to the area. For example, President Jim Ryan created a Community Working Commission last October made up of local residents to identify key issues within the area and help address them together.

The top issue listed in a report released in January is affordable housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. This is relevant to the University because if it does not provide enough housing, then it pushes people off Grounds and drives prices up for everyone.  

The other top issue, non-living wages for University employees, has a direct link to the early years of the University and the Jim Crow Era, when it had no obligation to pay high wages.

“They [did] not feel compelled to, nor [did] they have to, pay a living wage,” von Daacke asserts. “This is a legacy we’re still talking about in Charlottesville today where [there is] steep income inequality.”

The Shadow Catcher is a reminder of the University’s deep historical connection to the local community, as well as to institutions of racism and white supremacy.

Other memorials in Charlottesville also directly connect to these institutions, evoking controversy over the glorification of pro-slavery figures. Most notably, the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park has been debated since 2016 when city councilor Wes Bellamy proposed a commission to discuss the statue and local African-American high school students petitioned City Council, asking for the statue’s removal because they felt it was offensive. The debate reached a violent head when the Unite the Right Rally came to Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017 partly to protest the statue’s removal.

On Grounds, the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the West Lawn was vandalized with the words “Racist+Rapist” criticizing Jefferson’s slave-owning practices the night before the 275th anniversary of his birth. Both memorials have sparked charged discussions and confrontations about how to best represent Charlottesville’s history of racism.

But the Shadow Catcher memorial represents a different kind of narrative coming out of the same history — one of resilience.

“It’s an amazing success story when you look at Catherine Foster,” von Daacke said, because she succeeded despite being surrounded by “pro-slavery ideologues.”  

This shadow the memorial casts is our history. As time passes and things change, so does the placement of the shadow around the Foster House. The position of the sun changes our perception, as well as the prominence, of the history present there. Yet we are also attached to it directly — we cannot separate it from ourselves nor our present.

There are certainly times, however, when we cannot see the shadow, when we are not aware of our past or how it affects us.

“I pass here every day almost, but I’ve never stopped except for now,” Olbin explained.

There are other times when our past and present line up nearly exactly. This overlap of time and space is physically represented by the Shadow Catcher.

“Every once in a while, the light is such that … the shadow cast is the exact footprint of the house,” Hogg said.

In these moments, the sun is in the exact position to cast a shadow on the still-present, though hidden, foundation of the Foster House. In some moments, we understand clearly the effects of our history on the present.

“The Shadow Catcher is meant to evoke the presence of the house, but also reflect transience because the house is gone and all that’s left is a shadow,” Hogg said. 

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