Today, university leaders will gather where Jefferson and James Madison and James Monroe did 200 years ago to lay the cornerstone of this renowned public university. Jefferson’s ideals and his vision for this school he founded are well known, as he sought to transform American higher education.
At the centennial, a five-volume history of U-Va. looked back with pride on decades of illustrious achievements. But the bicentennial comes at a remarkable time in the history of this state flagship school.
Many at the university had already been pushing for a more critical look at the school’s founder, its past and the institution it has become. There was a weariness, for some, with what one academic called “all the Jefferson worship.”
Then, on Aug. 11, white supremacists carried torches on the very steps Jefferson designed, and fought with counterprotesters in clashes that turned deadly the next day in Charlottesville.
“The university’s entire history has shifted after that event,” said Molly Schwartzburg, the curator of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at U-Va. “I felt it happen.”
The librarians had been planning to open “The University of Virginia in 100 Objects” exhibit to the public Aug. 14, and delayed it for security reasons. When it opened later that month, “it felt like these things didn’t mean the same thing — and the bicentennial didn’t mean the same things it meant on Aug. 10,” she said.
The exhibit is based on Brendan Wolfe’s book, “Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in One Hundred Objects,” and that simple idea manages to convey something incredibly complex.
It’s a perfect counterpoint to the traditional narrative of the rise of a great university, Schwartzburg said. “It’s the exploding out of our idea of a university into a lot of small pieces,” in a way that’s particularly fitting at a time when many different narratives of the past are being discussed and debated.
“Right now, I think the university is trying to figure out what its history means,” Wolfe said.
The objects include the key to the Rotunda, a newspaper story about the first African American to earn a degree from U-Va., a strip from the crashed airplane of the first student to die in World War I, a U-Va. Barbie with orange and white pom-poms raised over her bouncy blond ponytail.
There’s a rainbow flag from the professor who created the first group for gay and lesbian faculty members, a wedding dress made from a parachute during World War II, a cartoon drawing of a professor, and a lock of Jefferson’s hair, snipped from his corpse by his secretary.
There’s a tin tile from the roof of the original Rotunda; after a fire destroyed it in 1895, an artist collected the blackened scraps, painted the iconic building on them and sold them as souvenirs.
There’s the ledger that shows the 58 cents Edgar Allan Poe owed for an overdue library book. (He never paid it.)
There’s the 1893 “pass certificate” for a woman who was reluctantly allowed to attend the university but was not given a diploma; someone even removed the university seal from the document.
There’s the stack of papers from the lawsuit that forced the school to fully admit women in 1970.
And there’s the 1981 national trophy earned by the women’s cross-country team.
There’s a photo of an enslaved woman who was hired out by a U-Va. professor, her eyes locked on the camera.
There’s the 1935 letter to the Board of Visitors in which Alice Jackson applied for graduate study at the university, arguing that the field she wanted to pursue was not available in Virginia in a program open to black people. The university paid for her to attend school elsewhere — Columbia University — rather than admit a black person.
And there’s the burned cross.
It was set alight in the yard of a faculty member’s wife who was an active supporter of school integration in 1956.
After the torches and violence in August, the curators and library administrators worried about displaying the cross. At first, Schwartzburg was certain it was an essential part of the exhibit, more so than ever.
“People were saying, ‘This is not my town,’ and other people were saying, ‘Actually, this is our town — Charlottesville has a long history of racism.’ We wanted to make sure we didn’t remove that history by removing that cross.”
But in the days that followed, she realized how traumatized the community was.
To see it in person is shocking, Wolfe said. “You just feel the weight of the kind of hatred that goes into something like that.”
They decided to leave the case empty, with an explanation, and some images of counterprotests.
The collection of objects is growing, and the school encourages people to suggest others.
It’s easy to see new symbols, past the initial 100: The plaques honoring students and alumni who fought and died for the Confederacy were removed from the Rotunda, after the Black Student Alliance at U-Va. demanded it in August.
The university has been planning a very large and very visible memorial to people who were enslaved there.
The special collections library has signs and armbands from counterprotesters, and a meme that blew up in the days afterward. It shows a much-loved U-Va. employee — who had been hit by a torch that was thrown at him — chasing the organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally away from the news conference he was holding.
And they have torches.
“It was surreal,” Schwartzburg said after the violent weekend. “We all came to work on Monday and people found tiki-torch wrappers and tiki-torch fuel containers in the bushes, and discarded, burned-out torches in the trash can behind the library.” Several people contacted her and asked that they be added to the collection.
And there’s another object, one that has always been at the center of it all: the statue of Thomas Jefferson.
On the night of Aug. 11, students and others rallied around the statue, almost like they were defending that statue as a symbol of the university, Wolfe said.
“Then a few weeks later, students were protesting at the statue and protesting the statue itself. They threw a black shroud over it, suggesting it represented white supremacy.”
There has always been a debate about Thomas Jefferson and what he means to the university, Wolfe said. “There’s a really intense, almost life-or-death urgency to it these days.”