Wednesday marked University founder Thomas Jefferson’s 279th birthday. To commemorate his legacy, the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello joined together to host a series of events known as Founder’s Day.
The University has celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s birthday since the University’s first academic session. In more recent years, there has been a backlash against the celebration of Jefferson, as students encouraged their peers to recognize Jefferson as not just the founder of the University but also as a slave owner. Recent backlash has included the defacement of Jefferson’s statue and peaceful protests by student groups.
The main event Wednesday was the presentation of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals, which were given to four individuals. These awards recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson excelled and held in high regard – such as architecture, citizen leadership, law and global innovation.
The event began at 10 a.m. on the historic West Lawn at Monticello. The foundation also offered a virtual option to those who were unable to attend in-person through Facebook and Youtube. There were about 20 live viewers who tuned into the Facebook, leaving comments wishing Jefferson a happy birthday and thanking the foundation for putting on the event.
The event’s keynote speaker was Sherrie Rollins Westin, president of the Sesame Workshop, who received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in citizen leadership. Sesame Workshop nonprofit organization produced several educational children's programs — including Sesame Street, its first and best-known program. In her role at Sesame Workshop, Westin leads the organization’s efforts to serve vulnerable children through mass media and targeted initiatives in the U.S. and around the world.
Westin also attended the University for undergrad and holds an honorary doctorate from Concordia College in New York.
In her acceptance speech, Westin said that the same values Jefferson believed in are also the “very DNA of Sesame Street.”
“Jefferson believed in the power of human potential, and I am so proud that the Sesame Workshop carries on his legacy to this day,” Westin concluded.
Following Westin’s speech, Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville and Richmond, received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Award in citizen service. The International Rescue Committee provides opportunities for refugees, asylees, victims of human trafficking, survivors of torture and other immigrants to thrive in America. The award was created just this year with the purpose of honoring a local community member.
In her acceptance speech, Kuhr spoke about the importance of making the world a better place.
“I see how community members recognize that even a small city has a role to play on the world stage,” Kuhr said. “A conflict in a country halfway around the world, such as the recent evacuation from Afghanistan, impacts us right here.”
Kuhr also spoke about witnessing Charlottesville community members opening their doors to refugees and offering to teach English to non-English speakers. Kuhr emphasized her gratitude for the community, but also said that the work is not done yet.
“We’re not asked to fix the whole world, just whatever corner of it we can,” Kuhr said.
Jefferson’s birthday also stirred lots of action from the secret societies on Grounds. Earlier in the day, the Society of the Purple Shadows marched across the Lawn at 6:30 a.m. and placed a wreath and letter in front of the Thomas Jefferson statue with a crowd of about 20 people.
The letter emphasized the need for progress at the University, expressing approval for the recent Honor referendum, which reduces the sanction for committing an Honor offense from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence.
“We affirm, unequivocally, the reform made to the single sanction of Honor,” the letter read. “This referendum, reducing the sanction for a breach of trust from expulsion to two semesters of leave, reflects the necessity to curtail punitive power until our structures of accountability can appropriately address lapses in equity.”
By the time the Purple Shadows arrived, there was already a flower arrangement in the shape of a “Z” waiting from the Z Society.
SABLE — another secret society at the University — put up a letter around Grounds asking readers to consider the harm Thomas Jefferson has perpetuated by owning and enforcing enslaved laborers to build the University.
“We hope for this visual to serve as a stark reminder of who he truly was – a virulent eugenicist and racist who was a constant threat to the lives and wellbeing of Black people throughout his lifetime,” the group’s letter read.
Later in the day, the University also planted a tree in celebration of a member of the University community who has made a significant, lasting contribution to University life. Mary Hughes, a University Landscape Architect who retired in January after two decades of service, was this year's honoree.