Adding context to the sins of Thomas Jefferson

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.
Robert E. Lee is not the only native son of Virginia to become persona non grata in the Old Dominion. Thomas Jefferson is a bad name to memorialize, even in Charlottesville.

You know things are really changing in Virginia when people in Charlottesville start removing the name of prominent Albemarle County native son Thomas Jefferson from public view and recognition.

The University of Virginia may be “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” but his name no longer exists on the area’ health district, which has changed its name from The Thomas Jefferson Health District to Blue Ridge Health.

“I think your name is sort of your first policy statement,” Dr. Denise Bonds tells the Charlottesville Daily Progress. “It is what you project out to the community, and it should represent the values and mission of your organization.”

She adds:

While Thomas Jefferson was a really important historical figure, and wrote many important documents, and is certainly part of the history of Charlottesville and Albemarle, he also owned slaves, and there are individuals that live in our community who are descendants of those slaves, and we want those individuals to feel comfortable coming to the health department as well.

The newspaper reports the city’s Unitarian-Universalist church no longer calls itself Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County governments discontinued a paid holiday on Jefferson’s birthday and the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors voted to add “context” to Jefferson’s status near the university’s iconic Rotunda to note he owned slaves.

Jefferson not only owned slaves, he was also a pedophile, notes Mike Sadler, who changed the name of his family’s company from Jefferson Area Builders to Charlottesville Area Builders.

“I think the company name was chosen because of Jefferson being from the area, and we’re builders, Jeffersonian architecture,” Sadler tells The Daily Progress. “It just made sense about 36 years ago, when we, unfortunately, weren’t paying as much attention to the big picture of Jefferson and some of these leaders of the past. We were just kind of looking at them with rose-colored glasses.”

He adds:

Jefferson had, you know, so many great accomplishments throughout his life. We just can’t continue to overlook his direct role in slavery. Then it wasn’t a relationship that he had with Sally Hemings. She was a child, and it was not consensual. One could say that he was a slave owner, potentially a pedophile and a rapist. When you kind of peel those layers back, that’s certainly not something that we would ever want to be associated with.

The Daily Progress story on the removal of Jefferson’s name in and around Charlottesville adds:

According to historians at Monticello, when Hemings was 14, she traveled to France to be a domestic servant and maid in Jefferson’s household. When she was 16, after initially refusing, Hemings returned to Virginia and enslavement “in exchange for ‘extraordinary privileges’ for herself and freedom for her unborn children.”

“I think the name change has really been good for us,” Sadler said. “I stand by it, and I’m so glad that we did it.”

Some wonder if George Washington, also a slave owner, is next. A resolution from the faculty of Washington & Lee University, for example, has asked the board of that Lexington school to remove both the names of Robert E. Lee and George Washington.

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, who bore at least six children from her relationship with Jefferson, was debated during his run for the presidency, when challenger Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, is reported to have told Jefferson that while “George Washington is considered the father of our nation, you, sir, are the father of mulattoes.”

Even centuries ago, political debates were nasty.

So is pedophilia.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse