The trustees overseeing the Jefferson Madison Regional Library face an “uphill battle” if they want to change the organization’s name, director David Plunkett said during Monday’s monthly meeting of the board.
Myra Anderson first suggested the name change last month. She’s the president of Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance, a Charlottesville-based group of descendants of enslaved laborers.
Anderson said that a library should be an inclusive space, not one that in her view perpetuates oppression.
Since the request last month that the board review the name, the trustees and library staff have heard from many people about the issue. The 112 comments received so far were compiled into a Google document that now spans 115 pages. Identifying information of those who submitted comments was redacted in the online document.
But Plunkett told the library board that all five localities involved with the library’s funding and operations would have to agree to any name change under a regional agreement that was first signed in 1974. That agreement codified the current name.
The library serves Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson counties. So far, Greene and Louisa are opposed to any name change, according to the resolutions adopted by the boards of supervisors.
The boards of supervisors as well as the Charlottesville City Council would have to approve any changes to the regional agreement, which outlines how the library system is funded, among other provisions.
Each locality essentially has veto power over any potential changes.
“If they exercise veto power, the status quo continues indefinitely,” said Michael Powers, who represents Albemarle County.
Not all library trustees were against the change.
“It feels like they are trying to corner us into a box,” trustee Lisa Woolfolk, who represents Charlottesville, said. “It makes me feel like I’m being pushed to keep something that I’ve heard from many people is not in line with the organization’s values.”
The board also heard community members who supported and opposed the change during an hour of public comments.
Powers said that changing the name to be more inclusive could exclude others.
“There’s no magic bullet that works for everyone,” he said.
Powers advocated for a contextualization of the name rather than a change that give air to viewpoints against and in support of the name.
“Clearly explaining the important legacies of Jefferson and Madison and why so many celebrate them while also fully describing the individual failings of the men who failed to live up to their own principles,” he said.
The board was not set to make a decision about the name and didn’t take action Monday. The trustees will continue gathering information and will discuss the issue at its next meeting.
A committee made up of representatives from the localities in the library’s service area will likely meet sometime this year to review the regional agreement and suggest changes.
“My agenda here is to make sure that this area’s most inclusive, diverse and free community resource doesn’t get sidetracked or handicapped by this discussion,” said Tony Townsend, a trustee representing Albemarle County who will serve as chairman beginning next month.
“I think this is a good discussion. I think it needs to happen. I think we can probably come up with a plan that will allow everybody to at least have input,” he said. “This is just the beginning of the process.”
Current chairman Thomas Unsworth said that though the trustees can’t unilaterally change the name, the board is not powerless.
“I don’t believe that removes our voice from this process,” he said. “We are the Board of Trustees here. We do still have has to be considered going forward to try to enact a change if the board so chooses.”
Willie Gentry Jr., a supervisor for Louisa County, told the trustees at the end of Monday’s meeting that he was listening to the comments. The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to approve a resolution opposing the name change. Greene County supervisors adopted a similar resolution.
“Did I hear any good reasons to change our resolution? To be honest, I didn’t,” Gentry said.
Close to 20 community members spoke at the Monday meeting with nine people opposing the name change. Eight community members showed strong support for changing the name of the library.
The group of people who support a new name for the library highlighted the dark parts of Jefferson’s life, pinpointing the fact that he and Madison enslaved people. The current name, supporters said, makes people uncomfortable using the library. They urged the board to act.
“It’s time for a change for all people and all people feel that,” said Gloria Beard, a longtime Charlottesville resident. “This community, this world is for everybody.”
Others cited Jefferson’s local and national importance, and the crucial influence the former president had in drafting the Declaration of Independence, as reasons to keep the name.
Travis Brinton, a Charlottesville attorney who graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, said he supported the removal of Charlottesville’s Gen. Stonewall Jackson statue, which came down last summer. Jefferson and Madison, however, are different, he said.
“Nobody looks at the Jefferson Memorial and thinks that we put that memorial along because we wanted to honor slavery or promote it,” Brinton said. “Yes, they were slaveholders — we can’t forget that — but that’s not the thing that defined them and made them significant to history. To the progressives important in the room, I want to make a progressive appeal for not changing the name. Maybe consider the political consequences of making that change.”
Ann McLean, a UVa graduate and board member of the Jefferson Council, a group of alumni group that works to preserve Jefferson’s legacy, opposed the change
“The enemies of Jefferson may not realize that they would have no rights at all [without Jefferson] but his ideas are discarded and [they] take his name away,” McLean said. “So you could look at regimes of Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Putin, and you can say, thank goodness for Jefferson.”
She added that she thought his words were divinely inspired by God.
After hearing several speakers talk about Jefferson’s legacy, Anderson offered a different view. She’s a descendant of families enslaved at Monticello as well as enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia.
“I’m not gonna sit here and argue about Jefferson’s greatness because that’s not what my DNA represents,” she said. “It represents the trauma, the oppression, but pain is a part of Jefferson that most white people want to gloss over when they’re talking about his greatness.”