A university worker cleaned a statue of Thomas Jefferson located on the Lawn at the University of Virginia. It was painted with the phrase “Racist + Rapist” early Friday. (Geremia Di Maro/Cavalier Daily)

The words “RACIST + RAPIST” were painted on a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia on Friday, the day the school commemorates its founder each year. This year marks the 275th anniversary of his birth.

Jefferson has become a fraught symbol as the university delves more deeply into its own complicated history, and as broader cultural battles play out nationally and locally over monuments and race.

Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the public university — is believed to have had children with a woman who was enslaved on his plantation. In August, students and community members circled a statue of Jefferson to protect it, as white supremacists carrying torches surrounded them, the beginning of a weekend of violent clashes in Charlottesville. In September, students and other community members shrouded a statue in black, with signs labeling Jefferson a racist and rapist.

On Friday, a seated statue of Jefferson on the university’s Lawn was painted with graffiti, on a day typically used to honor Jefferson’s contributions. The university and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello award the school’s highest external honors, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals in Architecture, Law and Citizen Leadership. Recipients of the medals give speeches, open to the public, and a celebration is held at Monticello as well.

“The university is disappointed that individuals vandalized the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Lawn on the day that we honor his contributions to our university and to our democracy,”  said Anthony de Bruyn, a U-Va. spokesman.

“The university recognizes the complexities of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and continues to explore them fully and honestly. U-Va. welcomes open and civil discourse on such important issues. However, acts of vandalism do not contribute to meaningful discussion.”

He said Friday that crews from the school’s facilities management were removing the paint, and the University Police Department was investigating the incident.

The Student Council president and the university’s Black Student Alliance did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

On social media, some called the vandalism disrespectful, while others welcomed the commentary, or considered its nuances.

Two constituencies exist at the university, said Jalane Schmidt, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and a community organizer and activist: Alumni and donors, who often have more gauzy, fond memories of the school’s history, and professors and students who may look at it with a more critical eye. “There’s a tension there.”

She doesn’t know who tagged the statue or why, she said, but she sees in it “an attempt to kind of poke at these sort of self-congratulatory narratives” that form so much of the identity of the school and of the city of Charlottesville.