At sunrise, purple-robed members of the Society of Purple Shadows walked silently to the seated Jefferson statue on South Lawn, placing a wreath and letter at its base before exiting in a cloud of purple smoke. This procession marked the beginning of Founder’s Day at the University, a holiday commemorating the 280th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13.
The Society of Purple Shadows’ proceedings on Founder’s Day morning have become a longstanding tradition since the group’s founding in 1963, and a crowd of onlookers watched the events unfold. Before the ceremony began, fourth-year College Nicholas Favele, one of the observers, described the wreath-placing ceremony as “iconic.”
“It’s my fourth year, I’ve never been, [and] it’s one of those secret society things you always hear about, even on the tours,” Favele said.
On Founder’s Day, the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello grant awards to those seen as embodying values Jefferson prioritized. This year, the recipients included Andrew Freear, an Alabama-based architect, Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist, and lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, who recently won a case for LGBTQ+ rights in India’s Supreme Court.
Rezaian, who received the Citizen Leadership medal, was the keynote speaker for Monticello’s Founder’s Day celebration. During their time on Grounds, each recipient will give a lecture on their area of study, which will be open to the public.
After the ceremony ended, second-year College student Syrell Grier stated that he wanted to be there to participate in tradition.
“I’m glad I [participated],” Grier said. “That was very interesting to witness… I think [secret societies] show a different side [of the University]. There’s an underlying culture to the larger culture that everybody else sees.”
Over the course of the day, University President Jim Ryan and Thomas Jefferson Foundation President Leslie Green Bowman presented the recipients with their awards. The group then enjoyed lunch at the Rotunda, as well as a formal dinner at Monticello.
Each Founder’s Day celebration is also marked by the planting of a tree, which is dedicated to a member of the school community who has made lasting contributions to the University. This year’s recipient is Pamela Woodie Higgins, former executive director of the Office of Major Events who retired January 2023 — after more than 40 years with the University.
.The University has celebrated Founder’s Day since its inception, although there has been resistance from both the University community and Charlottesville at large. On Founder’s Day in 2018, a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University’s Lawn was painted with the words “RACIST + RAPIST.”
In June 2019, following a vote by city councilors, Charlottesville made the decision to cease celebration of Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday. The holiday was replaced with Liberation and Freedom Day, a March 3 celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Charlottesville following the Civil War.
“At the end of the day, it’s all history and I think if we want to celebrate it, as long as we understand the baggage that comes with it, that’s fine,” Favale said.
Similarly, Grier said that despite criticisms of Jefferson, he doesn’t foresee any end to celebrations of Founder’s Day.
“It’s tradition,” Grier said. “I don’t really like Thomas Jefferson, but I understand that people are going to celebrate him because he did design this school.”
The final event of the 2023 Founder’s Day celebrations, the tree planting and dedication, will take place on April 25th at 10 a.m.