Charlottesville’s Complicated Relationship With Thomas JeffersonBreaking News
tags: Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville
With one vote, Charlottesville’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson just turned more complicated.
The Virginia city, enveloped in the legacy of the Founding Father, will no longer mark his birthday on April 13 as an official holiday. It will instead celebrate Freedom and Liberation Day on March 3, commemorating when thousands of slaves were emancipated in 1865 after Union forces arrived in the city near the end of the Civil War.
“We’re making sure the historical perspective is told from the black viewpoint, and being unwavering about our viewpoint of that,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who is Charlottesville’s first African-American female mayor, said in an interview this week.
The city council agreed to stop recognizing the holiday in a 4-1 vote Monday, just days before the Fourth of July—the national holiday celebrating the Declaration of Independence, penned largely by Jefferson.
Charlottesville has long wrestled with how to recognize both Jefferson’s slave-owning past and his contributions to and role in the city, home to the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, and Monticello, his home and plantation. Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves throughout his life, 400 of whom were enslaved at Monticello, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The National Historic Landmark and Unesco World Heritage site draws about 440,000 visitors a year.
The city’s push to reframe and reckon with its past intensified two years ago, after white nationalists took to the streets in a rally that left one counterprotester dead and marked a flashpoint in the rise of white supremacy in the U.S.
It comes amid a larger national discussion over how to remember the nation’s Founding Fathers and history. A mural showing the life of George Washington at a San Francisco school will be painted over after it was criticized for its depiction of Native Americans and enslaved African-Americans. Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates are discussing reparations for slavery and Southern cities and states continue to grapple withhow to handle Confederate statues.
“We like to laud ourselves for the beautiful and great parts of our cities, while not subjecting ourselves to identify the harsh parts and the ugly parts,” said Wes Bellamy, a city councilman who pushed for the holiday change and led an effort to remove Confederate statues. “In this whole era of healing, you can’t heal without dealing with the truth.”
Opponents worry the holiday shift stymies Jefferson’s legacy in the city most associated with him. City Councilwoman Kathy Galvin was the sole member to vote against removing the holiday on Monday. Ms. Galvin said that ongoing discussions about the complexities of the Founding Father are central to understanding American history and culture.
“In my view, Charlottesville’s local government needed to remain part of that dialogue,” she said.
The city first voted to celebrate Jefferson’s birthday in 1945, according to the city council.
“Was he perfect? Nobody’s perfect,” said Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law who has studied Jefferson for decades and defended his work and character. “We have deprived ourselves by our desire and current practice of throwing him under the bus.”
Monticello will still celebrate Jefferson’s birthday each year with a ceremony awarding Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals in areas ranging from architecture to law. Monticello has recognized the history of slavery there with guided tours and exhibits focused on these issues.
“It is precisely Jefferson’s duality—his vision and his failure to enact it—that make him relevant today,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president and chief executive of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.