Charlottesville City Council sparred over the city’s celebration of Thomas Jefferson before taking the initial step to eliminate his birthday as a paid holiday.
Councilors completed a first reading of a measure to replace the time off slated for the third president’s birthday, April 13, with Liberation and Freedom Day, March 3, during its meeting on Monday. The city designates the closest working day as a paid holiday — this year, Jefferson’s birthday was observed on April 12.
The measure requires a second reading. Council decided to hold two votes — one to add one holiday and another to remove the other.
At issue is Jefferson’s legacy as a Founding Father and as a slaveholder. While he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson forced more than 400 people to live in bondage during his lifetime at Monticello, and he fathered children with Sally Hemings, who was not emancipated while he was alive, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
"There’s no relationship that a slaveowner can have with a slave,” said Councilor Wes Bellamy.
Jefferson’s birthday has been marked as an official city holiday since 1945, according to city documents. It would be replaced with Liberation and Freedom Day, which commemorates the arrival of Union troops under Gen. Philip Sheridan in Charlottesville in 1865, leading to the emancipation of slaves in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Sheridan remained in the area until March 6.
Albemarle County observes Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday, while the University of Virginia does not. UVa does, however, hold Founder’s Day events around the date.
Charlottesville has 11 paid holidays, while Albemarle has 12.
The county, however, could vote to remove Jefferson’s birthday on Wednesday.
Albemarle’s proposal removes Jefferson’s birthday but doesn’t add paid holidays for Liberation and Freedom Day. Employees would get a floating holiday to use between Jan. 1 and June 30. Supervisors will consider the proposal during the board’s meeting on Wednesday.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker proposed recognizing March 3 and March 4 as official city holidays and removing April 13, according to city documents. At Monday’s meeting, the majority of councilors favored recognizing only March 3.
Walker said the change would “undo something that’s been put in place.”
“This sends a very strong message about our commitment to the work [of equity],” she said.
Removing two holidays and adding only one would have cost an estimated $62,500 increase in holiday wages in the upcoming fiscal year.
“We can’t continue to overlook the fact that he was indeed a slaveholder,” Don Gathers said during public comment. “He was indeed a racist. He was indeed a rapist.”
Councilor Heather Hill favored the county’s approach.
“It limits the days that we’re tying down our entire city government,” she said.
Hill wanted more feedback from staff and pointed out that it wasn’t clear when the proposal was presented earlier this month.
“You’re saying that staff is going to complain about having an extra day off?” Walker said.
Councilor Kathy Galvin discussed Jefferson’s contributions to the founding of the country, particularly religious freedom. She was in favor of no longer having it as a paid holiday, but using April 13 to tell the story of Jefferson’s contributions and his treatment of black people.
“I find it somewhat ironic that the very Founding Father who gave us the very ability to question our holiday schedule is now not going to be able to be acknowledged for that,” she said.
Galvin’s comment drew an eruption from the crowd, and Walker appeared to be at a loss for words.
“I can’t even understand how we’re having a conversation at this point about what the perception of what he did well is,” Walker said. “It is insane that in this time … that we will have a conversation about, ‘let’s just look at what he did well.’”
Galvin clarified that she supported the recognition of Liberation and Freedom Day, but eliminating the day wouldn’t erase Jefferson’s misdeeds.
“Doing away with Thomas Jefferson’s birthday doesn’t do away with the history,” Galvin said.
Walker pointed out that his birthday wasn’t celebrated until 1945.
“Between his birth and 1945, did anyone forget about Thomas Jefferson?” she asked.
Galvin responded with, “I don’t know,” which again set off the crowd.
The measures will come before council at its meeting July 1.
In other business, council also gave final approval to changes in utility rates.
For an average Charlottesville residential customer who receives water, wastewater and natural gas service through the city, the rates are projected to increase the total utility bill by $3.90 per month, according to city documents. The average user’s bill, including a monthly service fee, would be $115.52. The bill would be $121.38 with the stormwater management fee.
For residential customers who receive just water and wastewater service from the city, their utility bill would increase by 86 cents per month on average.