Because the University was founded by Thomas Jefferson, a lot of weight has traditionally been afforded to his legacy. While Jefferson may have founded the University, he does not own it. If it were up to him, the vast majority of current students wouldn’t be allowed to apply, much less attend the University. When Jefferson penned the words “all men are created equal,” we know it was meant exclusively for white men. Whether or not you are an admirer of his, the University and the country he helped build were intended to solely benefit white men. Yet, here we are — 40 percent of the undergraduate student body is comprised of nonwhite students, and over half are women. In light of the recent racial tensions in Charlottesville, it is essential for the University community to recognize that Jefferson does not define the University — students do. Just as we imbue meaning to his words in the Declaration of Independence which he surely did not originally intend, many of us, simply by being here, imbue new meaning to his most treasured institution. It is up to each class to decide for themselves what direction they hope to take the University.
The white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville might claim Thomas Jefferson, but they cannot claim our University. They might claim the University of 1865, 1919 or 1950, but they cannot claim the University of today. When white supremacists and neo-Nazis through our Grounds, they wanted to turn back the clock to a time when white terror ruled the streets of the South, to when people were admitted not by their merits and the content of their character but by the color of their skin. Instead, the University and the greater Charlottesville community demonstrated in no uncertain terms that such a regression is unacceptable. We have decided this is not a legacy we wish to honor, and it has been up to us to continue pushing forward. It is our responsibility to take ownership of the University, and defend it not as Jefferson defined it, but as we do.
The first year class has an especially important responsibility. As the incoming class, they have a powerful influence over the direction of the University in the coming years. To the class of 2021: Do not allow the University to be defined by the actions of outsiders, or even by its own founder. Take ownership of the University, guide it in the direction of tolerance and understanding. The everyday actions of each individual student bear more influence on the direction of the University than any depraved outburst by hateful outsiders, no matter how violent or sensational. Each student is tasked with deciding for themselves what the University means to them, and working each and every day to make that vision a reality.
In the decades to come, the images of the abhorrent individuals who invaded our city and our school may begin to fade from memory, but the image of the thousands of students, administrators and community members standing in solidarity on the Lawn awash in soft candlelight will be seared into our minds, and the history of the University.