Thomas Jefferson is no longer its name.
More than 95% of the membership of the Unitarian-Universalist church formerly known as Thomas Jefferson Memorial who voted Sunday chose to drop the name of the native son from the church’s moniker. The third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia’s troublesome history as a slave owner and his treatment of indigenous people were among the reasons cited.
“We voted to change the name of the [Unitarian-Universalist] congregation, removing ‘Thomas Jefferson’ from the name,” the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, interim pastor, said Monday. “The new name will be decided following many more conversations and another vote. The vote was overwhelmingly 95.5% positive.”
For nearly 80 years, Jefferson’s name has been on the local church, founded in 1943, because he championed liberty, equality and freedom for all religions when those ideas were radical.
In the last decade, the traditional Jefferson legacy has run up against his status as a plantation owner using enslaved people to build his home, work his fields and earn his money.
The church’s board of trustees created a name-change task force this summer to look into the issue, writing that “Jefferson enslaved over 600 people in his lifetime, depriving them of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that he declared a universal truth.”
The church’s efforts on behalf of equal and civil rights made Jefferson’s name problematic. Peebles said the congregation’s progressive political and religious values may conflict with how Jefferson is seen by others and may have negative connotations for the congregation.
In a Sept. 10 letter to the congregation from the church’s name-change task force, members said they were not attacking Jefferson by proposing changing the name but looking at how his legacy affects others.
“We aren’t doing it to vilify Jefferson. We are simply doing it to be welcoming, inclusive and as a necessary but not sufficient step towards ceasing racial harm that we have knowingly or unknowingly been causing to many, many Black and brown people in our area and many Black and brown [Unitarian-Universalists] in our denomination,” the letter states.
According to church documents, the task force will seek input from the congregation and collect suggestions for a new name. The church board will set the timing and structure for discussion and voting on a new name.