The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library will begin discussions of a potential name change for the library after a local descendants of enslaved laborers group asked the library board of trustees to change the name Monday.
Members of Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance, a Charlottesville-based group of descendants of enslaved laborers, asked the library’s board of trustees during the public comment period of Monday’s board meeting to begin work on changing the name. Myra Anderson, director of Reclaimed Roots, said it is unacceptable that the library system bears the name of slaveholders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
“For a number of years now our community has been undergoing a racial reckoning. The efforts have resulted in schools and organizations changing their names and statues being removed,” Anderson said. “Our library has remained silent and continued to bear the name of two slave owners. We believe the library is long overdue for a name change, and that maintaining a bad name of a white supremacist is maintaining white supremacy in a space that is supposed to feel inclusive and equitable.”
As a result of Anderson’s comments, the board moved to add discussion of a name change to next month’s agenda. They are not planning to take a formal vote yet, but will open the discussion for if a name change is necessary, how it could happen and what the procedure would look like.
The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library spans over eight branches and a traveling mobile unit across the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Greene County, Nelson County and Louisa County.
“Jefferson has Monticello and Madison has Montpelier. They will never be forgotten. The way we see it, the library’s goal is for the stories of Jefferson and Madison to be told inside the building in books, not outside by the name of the building,” Anderson said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I can tell you that there’s some people who won’t even walk into the building because of the name on the building. That’s real talk.”
Thomas Unsworth, President of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Board of Trustees, said hearing that the name discourages people from visiting is “heartbreaking.”
“The library is supposed to be a place that is open, welcoming. Our fundamental purpose is supporting ongoing education, ongoing learning, providing people with safe places to grow and explore. Hearing something like that breaks my heart,” he said.
Library director David Plunkett said the next steps are for him to figure out whether there are any restrictions in the library’s bylaws that would restrict or make it difficult for the library to change the name. Plunkett will present this information, as well as information about the name and its history, to the board of trustees at the June 27 meeting, which will be held at the Northside Library with a Zoom option.
“My assumption is that the library board is going to have a wide range of authority to make decisions about this,” Plunkett said.
Plunkett said the library system has gone through a few name changes in its over 100-year history. It’s been the Charlottesville Public Library, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Library, and was the McIntire Regional Library prior to the board changing the name to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in the early 1970s.
Plunkett said the library has heard from Anderson and Reclaimed Roots before, but has never had a wider discussion about whether the name should change.
Anderson said there is precedent for similar bodies that span multiple counties changing their names. She brought up the Blue Ridge Health District, formerly the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which officially changed its name effective January 2021 after a phase out of the Thomas Jefferson name and branding in fall 2020.
Other groups bearing Jefferson’s name have made a switch. The United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area became the United Way of Greater Charlottesville in 2019, and the Jefferson Area Children’s Health Improvement Program also changed its name to Child Health Partnership the same year. In 2020, the membership of the Unitarian-Universalist church formerly known as Thomas Jefferson Memorial voted to drop the third president’s name.
Albemarle and Charlottesville governments no longer have a paid holiday for Jefferson’s birthday. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors passed a resolution in 2020 to add context to the Jefferson statue near the Rotunda to include his ownership of slaves.
Unsworth said he believes the library will look to other bodies that changed their names when evaluating next steps.
“We’re lucky that we have a lot of local precedent right now for how to handle this. I hope that we’ll look to some of those peer organizations to get a good sense for the ways in which this process can take place,” he said. “Based on the discussion today, it seems like there’s a good deal of interest in carrying this conversation forward.”