Charlottesville votes to end Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as city holiday

It’s hard to think of Charlottesville, Virginia, without thinking of one of its most famous residents, but the city council has voted to remove Thomas Jefferson’s birthday from the list of city holidays.

“Charlottesville is the location of Jefferson’s birth, his death, and it’s the place he called home when he wasn’t in Washington,” as the third president of the United States, said Hawes Spencer, a longtime Charlottesville reporter and resident.

Jefferson was born April 13, 1743. He founded University of Virginia, and his home, Monticello, “sits on a little mountain on the outskirts of town and draws almost half a million visitors annually,” Spencer said.

Though Jefferson was a founding father, who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he also owned slaves.

Some in Charlottesville have spoken often about Jefferson’s dichotomy, but, Spencer said, “I’m not sure there’s been a lot of listening.”

About 20 years ago, a new high school was planned for Charlottesville.

“At the time, the proposal to name it Monticello High School sailed right through, but I think a lot of white Charlottesvillians didn’t give proper heed to was that what we call a house was actually a plantation, or some might even call it a work camp,” Spencer said. “Or worse.”

“It was a place where over 400 people were held in bondage, not only for the course of their lives, but the children they had grew into slavery, as well,” Spencer said.

On Monday, the Charlottesville City Council voted to drop Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday. In a separate vote, they created a new day of celebration called Liberation and Freedom Day.

Spencer said the new official holiday — which will be celebrated on March 3 — “Commemorates that day in 1865 when Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troops rolled through town and found a population that was majority African American — and although emancipation for most of them probably didn’t occur on that day, it was the opening salvo for a lot of Charlottesvillians’ freedom.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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