UVA Scholars Host Discussion on Jefferson's Legacy with Race

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discussion at UVA School of Law discussion at UVA School of Law

Four scholars at the University of Virginia are grappling with Thomas Jefferson's mixed legacy this President's Day.

Monday, a UVA Law School panel discussion shed light into the issues surrounding how historical figures who owned slaves are honored.

Amidst conversations about the legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders, the UVA scholars are also considering the proper place of Jefferson's legacy.

Some say he's a hero, and others, a hypocrite.

Jefferson is ever- present at the university he founded from the design of the Academical Village, to the frequent quoting from his works, but historically, his legacy as a slaveholder has not been as visible.

“That history at UVA, as something that is experienced, is hidden in plain site,” UVA history professor Kirt Von Daacke said.

Scholars speaking say it's important to grapple with this "mixed" legacy.

“And I think one way of doing that is to put the story of Jefferson and the story of slavery together, a single frame, a single narrative, rather than slavery being an ancillary story,” Christa Dierksheide, a Monticello historian, said.

For Dierksheide, a historian at Monticello, that means putting slavery at the beginning of tours and speaking openly about it, and said “it has to be the heart of the story.”

Psychology professor Noelle Hurd said unequivocally that UVA administrators should not quote from Jefferson when dealing with issues such as bigotry or sexual assault.

“I think at minimum it's counterproductive, at most it's downright offensive,” Hurd said.

History professor Claudrena Harold noted the depth of Jefferson's racism.

“In the notes on the state of Virginia, Jefferson posited that African-Americans were inferior to whites in both body and mind,” Harold said.

She cautioned, though, against only discussing Jefferson and race. Instead, she said to make sure broad discussions about race continue so that the UVA community doesn't become more comfortable discussing race then instead of now.

The university is also having conversations about the proposed memorial to enslaved laborers. The committee will be looking for public input at meetings this spring.

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