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Jefferson's 281st birthday party at Monticello shows just how much his legacy has changed

It will forever remain a mystery what the Founding Father would have thought of the ceremony on the steps of his beloved home on the eve of his 281st birthday as two Black women historians were honored in his name for their achievements in their fields.

But for many attending the ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate Friday morning, where Julieanna Richardson and Andrea Douglas were recognized for their work documenting and uplifting the history of Black America, the antithetical legacy Jefferson left behind — a slaveholder who advocated for freedom — has become part and parcel of the local holiday known as Founder’s Day.

“I cannot think of Thomas Jefferson without thinking of Sally Hemings and the Hemings family,” Richardson told the crowd of roughly 200 assembled on the western lawn at Monticello. “I actually feel their presence here today. I can even see them peeking behind those trees. They’re curious that I’m standing here today. But as I stand here, speaking to you, I seek to honor them in order to tell a fuller, more complete story of our nation’s history.”

Every year, the two institutions charged with carrying on Jefferson’s legacy — the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, and the University of Virginia, the school he founded — recognize three individuals for their contributions to architecture, leadership and the law. Richardson was this year’s recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal for leadership. And she served as the keynote speaker at the Founder’s Day ceremony and celebration Friday morning.

Douglas accepted the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal for citizen service on behalf of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where she is the organization’s executive director.

“It’s a broad and inclusive place,” Jane Kamensky, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, told The Daily Progress after the ceremony. “Jefferson’s legacy can be embraced across the political spectrum through honesty and the pursuit of evidence as well as the pursuit of happiness. So it was really exciting to honor two educators of such different kinds and power.”

A Harvard-trained lawyer and Chicago resident, Richardson has dedicated the past two decades to preserving the stories of Black Americans with her documentary and nonprofit educational institution, the HistoryMakers. With a background in theater, television production and cable news, Richardson has interviewed more than 2,000 figures, both the well-known and the unacclaimed, from America’s Black history, including former President Barack Obama, Civil Rights leader Angela Davis, singer Harry Belafonte, poet Maya Angelou and Tuskegee airman William Thompson. The organization’s entire archive is now permanently housed in the Library of Congress, an accomplishment Richardson takes pride in.

“You don’t know how that makes me feel, that under one roof are the stories of the formerly enslaved and the stories of descendants of the formerly enslaved. That is why today is special to me,” she said. “Our joint digital archive that’s in 211 colleges and universities, including at UVa. That is why today is special to me.”

Standing before the crowd Friday morning, Richardson talked about how the inspiration for HistoryMakers grew out of her experience as the only Black student in her elementary school classroom in a small, predominately White town in Ohio.

“My only reference for Black achievement was George Washington Carver, which my White teacher talked about with great fervor,” she said with a laugh. “I mean he could do all these things with peanuts, like, how was that possible?”

Though she made light of the whitewashed version of history she was taught as a child, Richardson said she wonders how her life might have been different had she not grown up feeling ashamed that her great-grandfather was born into slavery or that she could not trace her ancestry as well as her White classmates.

“My focus has, for almost the last quarter of a century, been to tell the stories of Black America to ensure their inclusion in our nation’s testimony. Why? Because a melting pot cannot melt unless it has all of its parts,” she said.

She credited several people in her life who helped her shed that feeling of shame and supported her in her journey, including her mother and sister seated in the front row Friday, as well as two other mentors who have since died: her father, Julius Richardson, and college supervisor, Larry Fuchs. Fuchs founded the American Studies Program at Richardson’s alma mater, Brandeis University, and took Richardson “under his wing,” even sending her contributions as she worked to get HistoryMakers off the ground, she told The Daily Progress after Friday’s ceremony.

Richardson ended her remarks by touching on some of the “pernicious forces” in legislatures and school boards across the country, including Virginia, that are attempting to restrict the teaching of Black history by banning discussions on critical race theory and other subjects that may “cause students to feel discomfort, anguish and guilt.”

When Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office in 2022, one of his first acts was to issue an executive order banning “divisive subjects” from public schools in the commonwealth. Critical race theory, which defines racism as a systemic issue in American society instead of the product of individual biases, was categorized by the Youngkin administration as “divisive.”

“Thomas Jefferson saw the preservation of documents as essential to citizen leadership,” said Richardson. “On Oct. 4, 1823, right here in Monticello, he wrote, ‘It is the duty of every good citizen to use all of the opportunities for preserving documents relating to the history of our country.’ This is the essence of our work at HistoryMakers. Otherwise, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat.”

One group working to preserve documents relating to the history of the country is the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The center, based out of the Jefferson School City Center in Charlottesville’s Starr Hill neighborhood, preserves the city’s Black history, especially in regard to the Jefferson School, which opened in 1865 and has served as a center for Black education and community in Charlottesville for nearly 160 years.

“The award recognizes over 10 years of work since 2013. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center has offered an interdisciplinary program that helps to reduce the temporal distance between the past and the present,” said Douglas as she accepted the award on behalf of the organization. “We are a touchstone in this community, giving it a place of empowerment, and I am honored to receive this award as acknowledgment of all the things we are and hope to be.”

In order for the country to reach a place of equality and honesty, it is necessary to tell a full and holistic narrative about all of the actors and parties involved in its founding and development, said Douglas. One way the Jefferson School is carrying out that mission is through community collaborations.

“We’ve been in partnership with Monticello for quite some time,” Douglas told The Daily Progress after the ceremony. “And so I believe that receiving the award from Monticello sort of creates this place where we understand that we’re of like minds, and the idea is that the work that we’re doing at the bottom of the mountain so very much informs the work that they do here, and vice versa.”

Richardson also expressed an interest in working with Monticello. She has recently begun to look more into accounts from Black people living in the early days of the country from the 1600s to 1800s, “because we don’t know a lot. We know fictionalized accounts, but we have the opportunity to learn more.”

The two other 2024 recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals were landscape architect Kate Orff and Judge Roger Gregory. Gregory spoke on Thursday afternoon at the UVa School of Law’s Caplin Pavilion. Orff spoke at UVa Friday afternoon in the auditorium at Old Cabell Hall.


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