For the first time since World War II, Charlottesville won’t honor the Founding Father’s birthday this spring. Instead, on Tuesday, the city will celebrate the demise of the institution with which Jefferson increasingly has become associated: slavery.
Liberation and Freedom Day, as the new holiday is known, will commemorate when Union troops arrived here on March 3, 1865, and freed the enslaved people who made up a majority of Charlottesville’s residents.
“This marks a wholesale shift in our understanding of the community’s history,” said Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia who helped organize the events, which, despite the name, stretch all week. “To take Thomas Jefferson’s birthday off the calendar and add this is a big deal.”
The switch is the latest sign of a city struggling to come to grips with its past. The reckoning began with the legal fight over Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments, which inspired white supremacists to stage the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally. But the debate has moved far beyond it — to the consternation of some longtime residents.
“I have a problem expunging Thomas Jefferson from our history,” said Charles L. Weber Jr., a local attorney and one of a dozen plaintiffs in a lawsuit to keep the city’s Confederate statues. “Expunging him is not the right answer, just like taking the statues down is not the right answer.”
Across the country, especially in the South, communities are arguing over how to tell more inclusive and accurate histories.
Nowhere has this clash been more fraught than in Charlottesville, where parks have been renamed, then renamed again, streets have been re-christened, and stickers bearing white supremacist slogans go up as quickly as activists can remove them.
Yet the Confederate monuments that drew neo-Nazis to town remain standing. After a judge ruled last year that the statues should remain, protesters have covered them in graffiti and attacked them with hammers. The monuments’ defenders began literally defending them with late-night patrols. And someone even put up a hidden camera and tripwire to catch vandals in the act.
The latest assault on the city’s contested historical terrain came last month, when a man stole a slave auction marker from the sidewalk because he felt it was insulting to the slaves it was supposed to honor.
After confessing to a local news website, the 74-year-old amateur historian and activist was arrested on two felony counts and now faces up to 30 years in prison.
Like the statues and the decision to skip Jefferson’s birthday, the saga of the stolen plaque has again split the town. But it has also spurred the city to finally look into upgrading a memorial that most agree was inadequate. And it has drawn attention to the plight of the enslaved on the eve of Liberation and Freedom Day.
The event could mark a turning point for the town, which is part hip university tech hub and part Old South. For some, including many African American residents, the question is how far a city built by slaves, filled with Confederate statues and host to white supremacist rallies, is now ready to go to make things right.
“White Charlotteseville wants to claim the label of progressive and moving forward and awake,” said Don Gathers, a local deacon and activist, “but it’s still very much sleepwalking through what’s going on.”
‘Where do you stop?’
On the evening before the Unite the Right rally, dozens of white supremacists lit tiki torches and marched across U-Va.’s campus shouting racist slogans before reaching their target.
“That was no accident,” Schmidt said of the marchers’ attempt to claim — or reclaim — Jefferson as one of their own. “The local Klan chapter’s inaugural cross burning was at Monticello at Jefferson’s tomb.”
The city had once been ranked the happiest in the country — a title linked to the legacy of its most famous inhabitant.
“To the residents of Charlottesville, it is a fitting coincidence that Thomas Jefferson, principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence that installed ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as three inalienable rights, lived only seven miles away,” began a 2014 article praising its hiking and restaurants without ever mentioning its Confederate monuments.
A year later, when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans inside a church in Charleston, S.C., Confederate statues across the South suddenly became unavoidable.
Days after the massacre, the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville was tagged with “Black Lives Matter” graffiti. A local high school student launched a petition to get rid of the monument.
The city council authorized a commission to study the idea. After the commission recommended removing or re-contextualizing the statue — along with a nearby bronze of another Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — the council eventually voted to take down both monuments.
Weber and 10 others filed suit in March 2017, claiming the statues weren’t racist but were war memorials, protected by state law. In July, around 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan surrounded the Jackson statue shouting “white power” and waving Confederate flags.
“Then August 12 happened,” Gathers said.
In Charlottesville’s shorthand of sorrow, the date has come to stand in for the carnage that occurred.
The events of Aug. 11 and 12 also shone a spotlight on Jefferson, whose legacy was already being revisited amid more scholarship and public discussion about the fact that he didn’t just own hundreds of slaves. He fathered six children by one of them, Sally Hemings, starting when she was a teenager.
“This is very much known as Jefferson’s town,” Gathers said. “But Jefferson himself was a slave owner, a racist and a rapist. So why glorify him?”
Last summer, the city council voted to drop Jefferson’s April 13 birthday from the holiday calendar and replace it with Liberation and Freedom Day.
Opponents of the move called city leaders “carpet baggers” on social media and urged a boycott of the town.
Matthew Amiss, 61, whose 94-year-old mother is a plaintiff in the statue lawsuit, said he understood celebrating the arrival of Union troops, but axing Jefferson’s birthday goes too far.
“Unless you just showed up last week, somewhere in your family history is probably someone who owned slaves,” he said. “So do we tear your house down, too? Where do you stop?”
Weber, one of the other plaintiffs, said abolishing Jefferson’s birthday was part of a bigger project to “rewrite our history.”
Like the Confederate monuments, however, a purely heroic version of Jefferson isn’t historically accurate, Schmidt said. It’s propaganda.
“Who the heck do you think built the University of Virginia?” agreed Charlottesville resident Cauline Yates. “The slaves did. My ancestors did. … I’m almost positive that Jefferson ne’er lifted a brick.”
In April — a few days before Jefferson’s birthday — Yates and other descendants of the enslaved laborers who built the university will attend a private ceremony to unveil a memorial in their ancestors’ honor.
Among them will be DeTeasa Gathers, Don Gathers’s wife. The memorial, which is the size of the university’s rotunda, will be a welcome change in a town where black history is largely out of sight, she said.
“When you look at the monuments, signs, memorials, everything that represents the blacks of the city, they are on the ground, you can’t read them,” she said.
When she first heard that a small plaque in the sidewalk marking the site of slave auctions had gone missing, DeTeasa Gathers worried that a white supremacist had once again erased her community’s history.
But then she heard who’d taken it, and why.
“I got tickled,” she said with a laugh.
‘They’ll never find it’
Richard H. Allan III is white, but no white supremacist.
“Freeman,” as he likes to be called, sports a boyish grin and a long white ponytail sometimes capped by a beret. His emails describe him as an “iconologist” — or someone who studies symbols — like Professor Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s novels.
In an interview a few days after his confession but before his arrest, Allan told The Washington Post he felt the plaque was insulting to slaves and their descendants.
“How would you feel if they put a plaque in the ground to you so people could stand on it with their dirty shoes?” he said, adding that he was trying to atone for his own ancestors owning slaves.
Allan said he became aware of the plaque in 2014 when he read a letter to the editor in the local newspaper from Eugene Williams, a civil rights leader who, along with his wife and other black parents, sued in 1955 to desegregate the city’s schools. Williams criticized the marker.
Allan said he complained to city council members in 2014, then again in November after the commission recommended replacing the plaque with something more substantial.
When nothing happened, he went downtown on the morning of Feb. 6 and pried up the plaque with a knife and small crowbar before disposing of it in a location he refuses to reveal to police.
“They’ll never find it unless they put the screws to me like in the Inquisition,” he said.
He confessed, he said, because he worried police would think his friend Richard Parks had done it.
For months, Parks had been using chalk to alter the plaque and placing flowers and signs next to it to draw attention. Five days after the plaque went missing, the 68-year-old filled the hole with a replacement he made reading “Human Auction Site” instead of “Slave Auction Site.”
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who is African American, has expressed her annoyance at Allan and Parks, saying their “stunts” say more about their white privilege than the inadequacy of the plaque.
But others have praised Allan.
“White people are asked all the time to dismantle racism,” said DeTeasa Gathers. “Well, he did.”
“That little plaque was so inappropriate,” said Yates, chuckling over “the irony that it took a white man to dig it up.”
Williams also approved. Asked whether Allan should have waited, the 94-year-old scoffed.
“How long should he wait?” he said. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for the city, the country to realize that slavery has been the foundation for its economic progress.”
Allan, who declined to speak for this article but previously told The Post he viewed prison as “reparations,” has a preliminary hearing on March 12 that Williams plans to attend.
Meanwhile, the city council has begun considering what to put in place of the plaque. One idea, Schmidt said, is for a statue inscribed with a letter from an enslaved woman pleading for her family not to be torn apart.
On Sunday, Liberation and Freedom week began with a vigil at the site where the plaque once lay. Schmidt played a 1949 recording of a local centenarian who was once enslaved.
“My name is Fountain Hughes,” it begins. “I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.”
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