The Cavalier Daily editors referenced UVA President Jim Ryan’s recent pronouncement about “the importance of preparing students to be citizen leaders” to demand that he “create a physical environment that reflects [a] commitment to equality and [a] disavowal of white supremacy.” Noting that the Charlottesville’s local Ku Klux Klan Chapter hosted its inauguration ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello tomb, the editors objected that “there is a reason why they felt comfortable marching through Grounds. Our physical environment — from statues to building names to Jefferson’s overwhelming presence — exalts people who held the same beliefs as the repugnant white supremacists in attendance at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.”
Accordingly, they declared “these buildings must be renamed and memorials removed.”
Some of us have been engaged in this debate for years. I called for the removal of some statues over two decades ago. However, I have also opposed the removal of statues to leaders like Washington and Jefferson. We learn from history not by wiping it away but placing it into context. Washington and Jefferson are honored not because of their ownership of slaves but despite that terrible wrong. Indeed, the history of both leaders on slavery is complex, particularly for Jefferson who sought to include the following statement that was deleted by pro-slavery delegates as a condition for voting for independence:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Jefferson was a hypocrite on this issue and kept hundreds in bondage. As we discussed recently, this part of his legacy is not ignored in tours at Monticello.
We can recognize this legacy without removing references to one of the most important figures in not just American but world history.