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Upcoming YAF at U.Va. event defends Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, draws criticism

Students expressed anger that the organization is preserving the legacy of Jefferson, who owned enslaved people

<p>Due to Jefferson’s controversial history, many students are criticizing YAF for shining a positive light on the former president at the event.&nbsp;</p>

Due to Jefferson’s controversial history, many students are criticizing YAF for shining a positive light on the former president at the event. 

Young Americans for Freedom at U.Va. plans to host a public assembly titled “In Defense of Mr. Jefferson” Thursday in Newcomb Hall Ballroom at 7 p.m. The event is to promote the ideologies of conservatives at the University and defend the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The topic has drawn criticism from some students due to Jefferson’s ownership of enslaved laborers. 

At the event, YAF will be hosting Rich Lowry, editor of conservative editorial magazine the National Review, and Republican Congressman Chip Roy of Texas to discuss Jefferson’s various accomplishments and contributions. 

The organization received over 100 comments on their Oct. 3 Instagram post announcing the event, with the majority of these comments coming from frustrated community members disagreeing with YAF’s values.

Jefferson owned more than 600 enslaved people during his adult life and DNA evidence demonstrates that he fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at his plantation home Monticello. Over 4,000 enslaved laborers lived, worked and built the University, even decades after Jefferson’s death. 

While Jefferson at times opposed enslavement — calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” — he also profited directly from the institution. Jefferson bought, sold, mortgaged and leased enslaved laborers to maintain his plantations and uphold his wealthy status.

Due to Jefferson’s controversial history, many students are criticizing YAF for shining a positive light on the former president at the event. 

First-year Engineering student Natalie Bretton said the “defending of Mr. Jefferson” carries a negative connotation.

“While U.Va. students should be remembering the past, looking back on our wrongdoings and ensuring that we don't make the same mistakes again, we should not be 'defending' a man who built a university on the back of racist principles,” Bretton said.

This is not the first time YAF — an organization that aims to uphold conservative American values and provide conservative representation — has been embroiled in controversy at the University. In fall 2020, the national organization of YAF posted selectively-edited videos of a Student Council meeting that went viral online, which led to the harassment of many representatives of color. University President Jim Ryan recently drew backlash for posting a series of photos with members of YAF’s executive board thanking them for organizing a 9/11 memorial. 

“[YAF’s] agenda has placed priorities on values that are degrading towards minorities,” first-year College student Kimberly Mugaisi said. “[Many] of their actions seem to have violent intentions.”

Nickolaus Cabrera, chairman of YAF at U.Va. and second-year College student, told The Cavalier Daily the event is meant to focus on why Jefferson’s legacy should be remembered.    

“We are hosting this event to shine light on who Mr. Jefferson actually was and why now more than ever it is important that we defend him and acknowledge his contributions to society,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera said the upcoming event was intended to focus on the other contributions Jefferson has made to the country and to the University, such as writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as the nation’s third president. During his presidency, Jefferson was also responsible for the Louisiana Purchase from France that almost doubled the size of the United States. 

“I do think it is important to understand that he was a slave owner, but that is not the part of him that we are honoring and defending at this event,” Cabrera said. “We are defending his countless other contributions that he made as a founding father.”

Cabrera said one of Jefferson’s major contributions to society was his effort to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. As the number of enslaved individuals in Virginia steeply increased from nearly 300,000 at the end of the 18th century to nearly 500,000 by the start of the 19th century, Jefferson spoke out against the transatlantic slave trade, believing that maintaining it would destroy the federal union and lead to civil war. The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed during Jefferson’s presidency but continued illegally. 

Bretton, however, disagreed with the way that the event has been presented. 

“Using the word ‘defend’ implies that Jefferson is being attacked,” Bretton explained. “This is not the case, as students are only being completely transparent with his legacy. They acknowledge both the good and the bad.”

Cabrera said he encourages any University members concerned about the topics of this event to please attend. 

“This event is open to the public and we encourage diversity of thought,” Cabrera said. “That is what U.Va. is all about, so we would love to see you there.”

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