The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Monday to oppose the potential name change of Jefferson-Madison Regional Library because of the slave-holding legacy of the namesakes.
The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s board of trustees decided at their meeting last month to add discussion of a potential name change for the library to the June meeting agenda. The decision came after local descendants of enslaved laborers group asked the board to change the name because of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s legacies as slaveholders.
“The institution of slavery was evil, it was awful, it was despicable, and I don’t think anyone would ever try to justify it. But I think it’s foolish to take today’s moral standards and try to apply them to people who lived 300 years ago,” said Louisa supervisor Duane Adams, who spearheaded the resolution.
The resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors cites library history as part of its justification for opposing a name change.
“Public libraries in Central Virginia have a rich heritage derived from the private libraries of leading forefathers. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, who each had extensive personal libraries,” the resolution states. “The Louisa County Board of Supervisors are opposed to any proposed name changes of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.”
Adams said he sees changing the name as “divisive.” He compared the library bearing the names of slaveholders Jefferson and Madison to tobacco being depicted on the county seal.
“I think we are too divisive, I think we are too petty, I think we’re looking to have a fight,” Adams said. Gesturing to the county seal on the wall behind the supervisors, he said, “We all know the evils of nicotine, but I do not see anyone here who’s so offended that they can’t sit in the room with a picture of tobacco leaves.”
Adams said if the library board of trustees were to decide to change the name, he would want the Board of Supervisors to consider leaving the library system, or withdrawing its funding contribution. Louisa County currently gives $392,000 to the library per year. However, the resolution passed Monday does not withdraw funding.
While the resolution formalizes the Board of Supervisors’ opposition to a name change, the board has no vote in the final decision. That will lie in the hands of the library board of trustees.
No formal vote is yet planned, however. The board of trustees wants more information and will then begin discussing whether a name change is necessary, how it could happen and what the procedure would look like.
At the library board of trustees meeting last month, members of Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance, a Charlottesville-based group of descendants of enslaved laborers, asked the board to change the name.
“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,” Reclaimed Roots director Myra Anderson said at the board of trustees meeting. “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.”
Anderson also said she personally knows people who will not walk into the library because of the name.
Thomas Unsworth, president of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Board of Trustees, told The Daily Progress last month that 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.
After hearing from the descendants group, the trustees decided they were interested in exploring the possibility of a name change, and asked library director David Plunkett to look into the procedure. 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.