The first annual Liberation and Freedom Day celebration was held March 3 to commemorate the ending of slavery in Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville.
The celebration began with an interfaith service at the University Chapel. Following the service, participants marched from the chapel to the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, where the event concluded with a reception.
Reverend Tracy Howe Wispelwey from Westminster Presbyterian Church opened the service with a communal singing of “We Hear Freedom Ringing.”
”We are celebrating the liberation of over 14,000 men, women and children from slavery in 1865,” Wispelwey said.
The emancipation of slaves in Charlottesville and Albemarle County occurred toward the end of the American Civil War when local officials surrendered to Union troops on March 3, 1865.
A committee comprised of local religious leaders, civic officials, University officials and residents of Charlottesville were charged with organizing and planning the event.
At the service, Wispelwey said she hoped for “a restoring of our humanity” in light of the recent anti-Semitic acts around the country and threats Muslim students have faced at the University. She currently serves as the president of United Ministries, an interfaith group that works with University students, faculty and staff.
Wispelwey said in an email to The Cavalier Daily after the event that the celebration was a step in the healing process for the all in Charlottesville and University community.
“Our troubled history framed primarily through the Confederate “lost cause” narrative has prevented us from healing, all of us (black and white), from the trauma and violence of slavery and this is a step in re-storying our history in a common humanity,” Wispelwey said. “Celebration is also critical to community building and introducing beauty and resilience.”
Representatives from various religious communities spoke throughout the service. Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms from New Beginnings Christian Community American Baptist Church offered a “Re-story of History” and touched on events such as John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the Brody Jewish Center of the University, presented “readings of liberation and freedom.” Reverend Heather Warren from St. Paul’s Memorial Church and Reverend Deborah Lewis of the United Methodist Church spoke together, as well as Irtefa Binte-Farid, a University graduate student in the anthropology department and Mouadh Benamar, a graduate student in the biochemistry and molecular genetics program.
Dr. Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for Diversity and Equity at the University, presented a “Reflection on Liberation and Freedom at U.Va.” Martin credited the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Monuments and Public Spaces for recommending that March 3 be named Liberation and Freedom Day. He also thanked the city of Charlottesville, which officially recognized March 3 as Liberation and Freedom Day.
“It’s great to see the University and community come together,” Martin said during the service.
Martin discussed recent actions the University has taken to honor the history of enslaved African-Americans, including the naming of Gibbons dormitory after an African-American couple that was enslaved by University professors and a physical memorial to enslaved laborers on Grounds. He said the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers will be a space for “education and contemplation.”
Grace Aheron, who serves on the youth group support staff at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, led the march from the chapel to the Jefferson School. Aheron, a member of the University Class of 2013, said the procession would stop at Ebenezer Baptist Church and First Baptist Church along the way in order to honor African-American history in Charlottesville.
University students, faculty, staff and local Charlottesville residents attended the interfaith service.
Third-year College student Lucas Pulliza said the celebration was a “step in the right direction toward improving the University’s complicated relationship with portrayals of African-American history on Grounds and throughout the University.”
Second-year College student Sydney Bradley said she enjoyed the interfaith aspect of the service.
“To hear different religious views on peace and freedom is important and that should be shared,” Bradley said.