Reflecting on the Memorial Benches Initiative
One year after the dedication of two benches honoring Louise Stokes Hunter at the School of Education and Human Development, Sanjeev Kumar (Col, Com '23) reflects on the process of launching the initiative that honored women and people of color who served as change agents in the UVA and Charlottesville communities.
Editor's Note: In October 2022, as part of the Memorial Benches Initiative created by Sanjeev Kumar (Col, Com ’23), the School of Education and Human Development held a ceremony to dedicate two benches in honor of Louise Stokes Hunter, who became the first Black woman to graduate from the University when she earned her education doctorate in 1953. To honor the first anniversary of the ceremony, we are publishing this essay written by Kumar reflecting on the process and his work with the Education School.
When I first began the Memorial Benches Initiative four years ago, I was sitting on the steps of the Rotunda with a friend of mine, Julia Lee, and we talked about what our role was at the University; where we fit in as students of color in UVA’s history. When looking around at everyone who was represented in the built environment, I rarely saw someone who looked like me or Julia, or any of my peers of color. The University held such a high standard for diversity and inclusion for the student body yet had not used that same standard for representation on Grounds.
Initially, I thought I would just accept this as the status quo and continue passively through my four years at the University. But after learning that the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, such a large endeavor on Grounds, was initially a student-led project, I realized that our voices as students actually carried weight. That’s where the idea for the Memorial Benches Initiative first came to light. The Initiative aimed to create nine concrete benches to recognize women and people of color who served as change agents in the UVA and greater Charlottesville community.
One of the first schools to believe in the project was the School of Education and Human Development, where Professor Robert Berry, at the time associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, provided $1,000 of seed funding from his department to generate some momentum for the project. Dean Berry, along with the rest of the department, worked with me to secure additional funding and to gain more institutional support for the project. Without EHD’s support, the Memorial Benches Initiative would not have turned out the way it did.
"Individuals like Dr. Hunter should never be forgotten and instead deserve to be publicly recognized for their accomplishments, which can inspire an entire generation of students to believe they can be something in this world."
When selecting who would be recognized for EHD, it was clear to my team and me that Dr. E. Louise Stokes Hunter would be selected for her impact on integration at the University. Dr. E. Louise Stokes Hunter – the first Black woman to graduate with an Ed.D. in 1953 from what was at the time the Curry School of Education at UVA – was a trailblazer in mentorship and education. Dr. Hunter had already broken another barrier in 1925 when she became the first Black woman currently known to graduate from Harvard University with her Master’s in Education. Dr. Hunter’s doctoral dissertation focused on helping high schoolers transition to collegiate mathematics. She practiced this work during her time as a professor at Virginia State College, now Virginia State University (VSU), the first HBCU that granted four-year degrees in the United States. At VSU and beyond, Dr. Hunter was known for her strong belief in education and her careful and compassionate mentoring of students throughout her career as a teacher.
As we continue to open our doors to students from every background, every ethnicity, and every identity, it is important for us to reflect on what it took to get to where we are today. Individuals like Dr. Hunter should never be forgotten and instead deserve to be publicly recognized for their accomplishments, which can inspire an entire generation of students to believe they can be something in this world. The aim of this project was not to be the only project to recognize people of color and women at the University, but to serve as a starting point for more. There are so many stories of people at UVA who have touched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives that are waiting to be uncovered.
I challenge you all to think more about what it took to get to where we are today, what sacrifices were made and the resilience needed to enact that sort of change, and how you can continue to make this community a better place for everyone.