Charlottesville won’t celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday — it will mark slavery’s end instead

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — His name still adorns much of the city, from the public library to a private winery. And from the foot of a mountain dedicated to him, his statue still gazes out over the university he founded. But lately, in ways both small and seismic, Thomas Jefferson’s town has started to feel like it belongs to someone else.

For the first time since World War II, Charlottesville won’t honor the Founding Father’s birthday this spring. Instead, on Tuesday, the city will celebrate the demise of the institution with which Jefferson increasingly has become associated: slavery.

Liberation and Freedom Day, as the new holiday is known, will commemorate when Union troops arrived here on March 3, 1865, and freed the enslaved people who made up a majority of Charlottesville’s residents.


‘‘This marks a wholesale shift in our understanding of the community’s history,’’ said Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia who helped organized the events, which, despite the name, stretch all week. ‘‘To take Thomas Jefferson’s birthday off the calendar and add this is a big deal.’’

The switch is the latest sign of a city struggling to come to grips with its past. The reckoning began with the legal fight over Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments, which inspired white supremacists to stage the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally. But the debate has moved far beyond it — to the consternation of some longtime residents.

‘‘I have a problem expunging Thomas Jefferson from our history,’’ said Charles L. Weber Jr., a local attorney and one of a dozen plaintiffs in a lawsuit to keep the city’s Confederate statues. ‘‘Expunging him is not the right answer, just like taking the statues down is not the right answer.’’

Across the country, especially in the South, communities are arguing over how to tell more inclusive and accurate histories. In Charlottesville, parks have been renamed, then renamed again, streets have been re-christened, and stickers bearing white supremacist slogans go up as quickly as activists can remove them. The Confederate monuments that drew neo-Nazis to town remain. After a judge ruled last year that the statues should stand, protesters covered them in graffiti.