President Teresa Sullivan
came under fire last year for her quotation of Thomas Jefferson in an email following the 2016 U.S.
presidential election. In response, Asst. Psychology Prof. Noelle Hurd drafted a letter to Sullivan that
was ultimately signed by 469 students and professors. Signees felt that invoking Jefferson as a symbol
of unity actually did nothing to that effect. In her response, Sullivan endorsed their right to speak
on issues, but also emphasized that quoting someone does not imply and endorsement of all their beliefs.
What followed was a conversation across the University community about
quoting Jefferson and
his legacy on grounds. To address Jefferson's legacy, the University should look beyond the statues
that physically represent him and turn to the basics — adjusting what comes to mind of those in the University
community when his name is invoked.
There are many ways to commemorate significant historical figures. Their life and accomplishments can be recorded in textbooks,
remembered with holidays or awards in their name or honored by a statue erected in their image. Statues
are the most physical representations of this honor and have been the continuous site for both
counter-protests over the past few months on Grounds and in Charlottesville. After the white nationalist
protest in August, City Council ordered that the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas
"Stonewall" Jackson be
covered by tarps, and in a student protest last semester,
students covered the statue of Thomas Jefferson outside of the Rotunda. Evidently, the statues of
these men serve as the focus of intense frustration — so much so that they are covered or hidden from
sight. They have also, however, spurred conversations between the University community and Charlottesville
at large, around the naming of things like
City parks and
This kind of discourse around statues and naming emerges from the idea that figures should be commemorated on the basis of
their beliefs. Some people disagree on the commemoration of Confederate heroes because they do not agree
with the ideals they held, specifically regarding race. Those values, they argue, do not align with the
values of Charlottesville as a whole. The same thinking is present in the conversation around Jefferson,
who had a vision for the University that strictly excluded women and people of color. While he was envisioning
a University for southern youth, he had slaves working his plantation and building the very Grounds we
walk everyday. It has been
proven that Jefferson fathered the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and historical context
provides room for speculation on the non-consensual manner of their relationship. This negative picture
of Jefferson is all that some remember when they see his name.
Sullivan argued that evoking the name of someone does not mean a full endorsement of their character and beliefs. While this
is true, the University still struggles with Jefferson's legacy because we are living in the full fruition
of his initial vision. Yes, the University currently admits African Americans and women, but
it remains a majority white institution. Those who criticize the statue refer mainly to the fact
that he never envisioned the University's current level of diversity. If the community is against the
use of his name and words, then of course they would be against a statue in his image. Removing the statue
from its current location does nothing to address the issue with Jefferson's legacy. Instead, it hides
the problem and allows it to exist somewhere else. The issue of his beliefs and legacy will still be
up for debate.
The conversation around Jefferson is different than the conversation around Confederate generals because of his relationship
to the University. The school would not exist without Jefferson, and as the founder, his image rightfully
belongs on Grounds. Though Jefferson would never have given them credit, the University also would not
exist without the slaves that built it. If the University is to continue to invoke and dwell on Jefferson's
legacy, the administration needs to work out a way to demonstrate that his ideals are the foundation
from which this institution developed — and that his problematic beliefs of exclusion can not be applied
to the present.
The focus on tangible entities like statues seems important, but this is more of a debate on the intangible and the beliefs
of those in power at this institution. Is the University stuck in the Jeffersonian past of exclusion,
or is it open to a future that includes and appreciates the very people to whom Jefferson denied educational
access? For the University to properly address his legacy, it needs to address the goals of the University's
founder, while also make solid efforts to ensure that the University denounces the exclusive elements
of Jefferson's vision. Statues are a natural place to start, but the backlash against President Sullivan
demonstrates that conversation should start at the basics — Jefferson as symbol for his beliefs and,
by extension, the beliefs of the University.