A gleeful crowd of about 100 people marched down University Avenue and West Main Street Tuesday to commemorate the date when more than half of the populations of Charlottesville and Albemarle County were freed from enslavement.
This year’s Procession of Freedom was the first to be celebrated as an official local holiday following a Charlottesville City Council vote last year to designate March 3 as Freedom and Liberation Day and a paid day off for staff, in lieu of Thomas Jefferson’s April 13 birthday.
This year’s procession featured various performers acting as enslaved people hearing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Moving from site to site, the performers led the crowd in hymns as they delivered news of their freedom.
For some in the crowd, such as Albemarle County resident Jennifer Rogers and her daughter, the procession was a welcome addition to the holiday.
“This should be a happy day and something we celebrate,” she said. “I’m glad to see it getting the attention it deserves.”
During the tour, the procession passed the site of the nearly completed University of Virginia Memorial for Enslaved Laborers, which is slated to open next month. The monument honors an estimated 4,000 enslaved people who lived and worked at the university from 1817 to 1865, most of whom have not yet been identified by researchers.
Situated on a triangle of grass just east of the university and across the street from the Corner, the $6 million effort is the culmination of a decade of student calls for such a memorial.
Snaking through crowded streets near UVa Grounds, the people in the procession walked with purpose, quietly chatting amongst themselves.
While stopped at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, Rev. William Peyton thanked the organizers for including the church and said inclusion is both a Christian and an American philosophy.
“We are all familiar with the story of American history told as an ever-widening circle of inclusion,” he said. “The story of the American vision of freedom is that it is held by a certain group who look around every couple generations, and in their own time and on their own terms, generously decide to include a few more people. That is the opposite of the Biblical story of how people get included.”
The holiday, now in its fourth year, was established as part of an effort by Charlottesville to acknowledge its history with slavery. According to Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, the commemoration has grown from three hours to eight days.
In February 2017, City Council declared that March 3 would commemorate the moment in 1865 when Union forces arrived in the city and liberated slaves after a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. The commission also recommended the City Council move or re-contextualize two downtown Confederate statues, which led to a legal battle that the city lost.
In addition to the forthcoming UVa memorial, a new Albemarle County marker honors John Henry James, who was lynched in 1898, and there are currently efforts to build a Vinegar Hill memorial that would commemorate an African American neighborhood leveled in 1965.
The three memorial sites are spread over a little more than a mile, and proponents, spurred by the 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally, hope they will help tell a new history of Charlottesville — one that better reflects the decades of slavery, violence and segregation, and one that encourages current residents to continue working for equity and justice.
After Tuesday’s march ended at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a dinner featured a panel discussion by descendants of people who were enslaved in the area.
In an introduction, Niya Bates, director of African American History and the Getting Word project at Monticello, told the audience that today there likely are more than 500,000 descendants of the 14,000 enslaved people who lived in Charlottesville and Albemarle County in 1865.
Jefferson enslaved more than 400 people during his life 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.
Panelists discussed the importance of oral history in maintaining family trees and the conflicting emotions that came with learning about their enslaved ancestors.
Myra Anderson, a descendant of enslaved laborers who lived at Monticello, said her response to the legacy of her family history has been complicated.
“It has been in some ways very exciting, and in other ways it has been deeply painful, it has been frustrating,” she said. “I feel like I’m constantly learning new things about my family and their connection to the history of the city and Albemarle County and all I can say is that I’m still unfolding the process.”
Even after emancipation in 1865, Anderson said, her ancestors were still enslaved by Jim Crow, segregation and institutional racism. Even her mother didn’t have the same freedoms Anderson enjoys, she said.
“I feel like I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and I feel like my purpose is not just to say that I’m a descendant but to continue all that they worked so hard for,” she said. “I feel like I have an obligation to continue their legacy.”
Colleen Yates, also a descendant of enslaved laborers at Monticello, said it’s important for historical sites to tell the full truth of the enslaved people who lived there, even though it may be uncomfortable.
“With being unrecognized, beaten and downtrodden, etc., when you go to these historical sites, the descendants want to see our history,” she said. “It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous but it’s our families’ history and we want it told and we want it told truthfully.”
Yates said she has been assisting with the monument at UVa, which she said is far overdue.
“They didn’t get their due the first time around and now with the memorial I’m going to make sure that they get their due,” she said.
Liberation and Freedom Day events continue throughout the week.