Thomas Jefferson’s city-sanctioned birthday celebration has been formally terminated.
In a controversial decision during a recent meeting of the Charlottesville, Virginia City Council, local leaders voted to remove an April 13 city holiday honoring former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who was widely recognized as a scholar and scientist, an architecture and agricultural enthusiast – and, of course, a slave owner.
Lawmakers decided to replace Jefferson’s holiday with “Freedom and Liberation Day,” on March 3 to commemorate the day enslaved African people in Charlottesville were officially emancipated in 1865 It’s a pivotal part of American history that’s been ignored and overlooked by some members of Charlottesville’s Southern society.
In fact, the decision to deprive conservative Charlottesville residents the formal celebration of Jefferson’s April 13th birthday has sent some right-wing citizens completely over the edge. Some blame “liberals” for suppressing Jefferson’s history and robbing residents and youngsters an opportunity to celebrate Charlottesville’s most famous citizen.
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Residents of Charlottesville – young and old – should learn about the emancipation of enslaved African people, especially in the context of the Civil War. Their liberation from shackles sought to right a horrific wrong – the enslavement of a generation of Black people. It was a courageous move by the Charlottesville City Council to put the issue of slavery front and center and not sweep it under the rug as many conservatives would like.
Many Charlottesville residents don’t want to be reminded that Jefferson enslaved 400 African men, woman and children at his 5,000-acre mountaintop plantation at Monticello – and a total of 607 black people over his lifetime. Some Charlottesville residents are angry that Jefferson, their hero, has been marginalized by a council of lawmakers. And neighbors who still wave the Confederate flag from their front porches refuse to admit that the Civil War was fought over slavery.
“Thomas Jefferson already has 365 holidays and I do think that is the case here in Charlottesville,” Charlottesville Councilor Wes Bellamy told reporters. “You literally can’t go anywhere within our city without hearing or seeing a reminder of Thomas Jefferson.”
Bellamy is right.
Abolishing Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday will not diminish Jefferson’s legacy and his place in history as the nation’s third President, founder of The University of Virginia, and author of The Declaration of Independence.
And if Charlottesville residents seriously want to teach their kids about all aspects of Jefferson’s life—from science to slavery — then I would suggest driving just a few miles up the mountain to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for a thorough, educational and intriguing portrayal of Jefferson and his many compelling contributions to America.
Monticello tells Jefferson’s complete story. The Mountain Top Project at Monticello ended in 2018, a five-year, $35-million effort to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it, and to tell the stories of the people — enslaved and free — who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre Virginia plantation.
Monticello unveiled the restoration of Mulberry Row in 2015, which includes the re-creation of two slave-related buildings, the “storehouse for iron” and the Hemings cabin. In May 2015, more than 100 descendants of enslaved families participated in a tree-planting ceremony to commemorate the new buildings.
Archaeologists also excavated an area of the Monticello mansion that revealed the living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children. In an effort to bring transparency to the grounds’ difficult past, there are tours that focus solely on the experiences of the enslaved African people who lived and labored there, as well as a Hemings Family Tour.
Gayle Jessup White, Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer, is a descendant of the Jefferson and Hemings families and an integral part of Monticello’s African-American legacy: Sally Hemings was White’s great-great-great-great aunt. White said balancing Jefferson’s achievements and flaws makes for a complex but much-needed discussion.
“We respect the city’s process for resolving questions around its official holidays. At Monticello we hold Jefferson’s immense achievements and deep flaws in tension. We have those discussions with guests every day,” White told The Richmond Times Dispatch. “We are committed to sharing an honest, complicated and inclusive view of our history — including the history of race and slavery at Monticello — and the commemoration of Jefferson’s birthday is an important time for these tensions to be engaged.”
On a sunny weekday two summers ago, Monticello tour guide Tom Nash spoke to a group of white tourists and shared stories about slavery on the sprawling Jefferson plantation.
“This is a spectacular view from this mountaintop,” Nash said. “But not for the enslaved people who worked these fields. This was a tough job and some of them — even young boys 10 to 16 years old —felt the whip.”
Questions for Nash from tourists were wide-ranging and there are still similar queries today:
Why was Jefferson a slave owner when he wrote that all men are created equal?
How many enslaved people did Jefferson set free?
How many hours a day did enslaved people work on Jefferson’s plantation?
“Working in the fields was not a happy time,” Nash said. “There were long days on the plantation. Enslaved people worked from sunup to sundown six days a week. There was no such thing as a good slave owner.”
Eliminating a one-day city holiday honoring Thomas Jefferson should not infuriate conservatives if they’re truly committed to learning more about Jefferson and educating Charlottesville’s children. Just up the road is a convenient and proper alternative: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, open seven days a week.
What do you think?
PHOTO: Public Domain
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