Charlottesville is considering removing the celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Nikuyah Walker proposed eliminating the April observance and replacing it with Liberation and Freedom Day in March.
Jefferson’s birthday is April 13 and the city designates the closest working day as a paid holiday. This year, it was observed on April 12.
Liberation and Freedom Day celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. This year, it was celebrated on the first weekend of March.
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.
Walker didn’t expand on the reasoning for her proposal or return a request for comment on Tuesday. Councilors Mike Signer, Kathy Galvin and Heather Hill either didn’t return requests or declined comment on Tuesday.
Councilor Wes Bellamy said he is “proud” of Walker for the proposal.
“I think it’s a conversation that we definitely as a city need to have,” he said on Tuesday.
Bellamy said that although Jefferson is a Founding Father, he was a slaveowner. Bellamy also highlighted that Jefferson “raped Sally Hemings,” who was one of Jefferson’s slaves.
Hemings is widely acknowledged by researchers to be the mother of six of Jefferson’s children.
Gayle Jessup White, a descendant of the Hemings and Jefferson families and community engagement officer at Monticello, said balancing Jefferson’s achievements and flaws creates “tension.”
“We respect the city’s process for resolving questions around its official holidays. At Monticello we hold Jefferson’s immense achievements and deep flaws in tension. We have those discussions with guests every day,” White said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to sharing an honest, complicated and inclusive view of our history – including the history of race and slavery at Monticello – and the commemoration of Jefferson’s birthday is an important time for these tensions to be engaged.”
City Attorney John Blair said the proposal could likely be approved through revising the ordinance that dictates the city’s holiday observances.
Blair plans to bring the item before council at its June 17 or July 1 meeting.
Council last changed the paid holiday calendar in 2015 by eliminating Lee-Jackson Day. Council also voted in 2017 to commemorate the second of October as Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day, although that is not a paid holiday.
In other business, council voted 4-1 to remove operating investments from companies associated with fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing.
Signer cast the dissenting vote.
Residents have been urging council to take the action for several months. In May, city staff reported that roughly $2.16 million is invested in such companies through the city’s retirement plan or operational funding investments.
The retirement commission plans to present a report on its investments in the fall.
“The retirement fund is a much larger fund and we hope that you continue to work with that,” Sarah Lanzman told the council.
City officials have 30 days to remove all investments from companies associated with fossil fuels or weapons.
City staff have not named the companies, but describe energy companies as those directly and indirectly contributing to climate change, including chemical manufacturers, railroad companies, airlines and utilities.
According to last month’s report, the city has retirement investments of about $1.56 million in defense companies and $818,000 in energy companies, with another $788,000 tied to bonds issued by energy companies.
Signer said he voted against the proposal because targeting weapons manufacturing was broad. He supported divestment from energy companies.
Council also voted 4-1 to approve a special-use permit for a drive-thru window for a Starbucks at the former Wells Fargo bank at 1617 Emmet St. Galvin voted against the permit, citing former Planning Commission actions to revise the zoning ordinance that would have made the permit unnecessary.