To a smattering of applause as the clock approached midnight, Charlottesville City Council abolished the celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.
Council voted, 4-1, to remove April 13 as a paid holiday at its meeting on Monday. Councilor Kathy Galvin cast the lone vote in opposition. She has previously cited Jefferson’s contributions to the nation’s founding.
Council then voted unanimously to establish March 3 as Liberation and Freedom Day and provide employees a floating holiday.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker proposed eliminating the recognition. She originally proposed March 3 and March 4 as new holidays, saying Monday that it would bring the city to 12 holidays, in line with Albemarle County.
City Manager Tarron Richardson surveyed city employees who voiced support instead for a floating holiday.
The issue surrounding Jefferson’s birthday was his role as a slaveholder.
Jefferson forced more than 400 people to live in bondage during his lifetime at Monticello, and he is believed to have fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, who was not emancipated while he was alive, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello.
Liberation Day hearkens back to March 3, 1865, when Union troops under Gen. Philip Sheridan arrived in the area under orders to destroy the Virginia Central railroad line, cutting off Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s supply line to the Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan occupied the city until March 6 and, during that time, many slaves used the occupation to free themselves.
Albemarle County voted last month to replace Jefferson’s birthday with a floating holiday for employees.
Ben Doherty said that only adding a floating holiday wouldn’t have been a strong enough statement about the city’s mission to examine its history on race.
“A floating holiday does not go far enough,” he said.
Doherty was among three speakers to address the proposed change during public comment while supporters held signs denouncing Jefferson as a racist and a rapist.
Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, decried Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves, particularly Hemings.
“Thomas Jefferson is the R. Kelly of the American Enlightenment,” she said, referring to the American rapper who faces 10 charges of sexual abuse. “Their non-consensual sexual relationship was normalized by the brutality of the age.”
Scott Wawner was the lone speaker to implore council not to eliminate Jefferson’s birthday, saying he felt compelled to “defend the honor” of the former president.
When Wawner said Jefferson built Monticello and University of Virginia, he was greeted by hecklers who said “slaves built Monticello” and the college.
Wawner, like Galvin, spoke of Jefferson’s accomplishments in the establishment of the country.
“With all of these incredible accomplishments,” he said, “it is inconceivable that this city not recognize his birthday.”
Richardson will create a revision to the employee manual addressing the floating holiday and how employees can use it.
Elliott Harding, who joined the meeting in the early hours of Tuesday morning for the second public comment session, suggested that the city designate Election Day as the holiday.
“I think it’s something Charlottesville needs to take a stand on, given the history of liberty and independence and what we stand for to our country,” he said. “Why not? Let’s send a signal.”