What Thomas Jefferson Taught Me About Charlottesville and America

University of Virginia grad Joshua Adams believes that if you want to understand the recent violence there, look back at history and the school’s complicated founder.

Joshua Adams | Longreads | August 2017 | 11 minutes (2,840 words)


Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had no idea about the University of Virginia. I knew I wanted to go away for college, and from about the time I was 10 years old, my mind was set on attending the University of Michigan. If it weren’t for my father constantly checking college rankings in magazines and taking me on college tours my junior and senior years of high school, UVA wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But soon I got to see how beautiful the campus and city of Charlottesville were. Everything on the grounds has an historical aura to it — the neoclassical architecture, the Amphitheatre, Edgar Allen Poe’s room, the Rotunda designed by founder Thomas Jefferson, a man who at that point I knew little more about than what they teach you in grade school. I didn’t research UVA’s acceptance rates, tuition, majors, alumni success rates, or any of that stuff, because after I saw the alluring Central Grounds, I was sold.

That fall, my family and I drove to Virginia from Illinois, and I settled into the Kent building of what are known as “Old Dorms.”

The first year transition into UVA was rough. I was battling recurring bouts of colds and flus, and felt socially isolated as an out-of-state student and the only Black male from Chicago. I felt like I was falling through the cracks, and didn’t know who to reach out to. But by my second year, my health improved, I felt more comfortable in my surroundings, and I found my niche within African American Studies and English classes. Add the immeasurable warmth of folks like legendary dining hall cashier Mrs. Kathy McGruder, long lunch and dinner dates in Newcomb with groups of friends, and the hilarity of “Adventures of Cavman” at home football games, and C-Ville and UVA became my second home.

I will always have enormous affection for Charlottesville. In reflective moments, I look back and feel blessed to have called it home for four crucial, formative years of my college life. Charlottesville has figured into my professional life, too. My first ever print feature story as a journalist was with its local paper, C-VILLE Weekly.

Last weekend, I found myself glued to the television as the“Unite the Right” rallies unfolded. Alumni all over the country took to social media to give updates about what was going on. The footage of white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. driving into counter-protesters left me speechless. Charlottesville being in the national headlines for domestic terrorism might not have seemed predictable for that quaint and quiet college town. However, as positive as my feelings are towards the place, I can’t say I was entirely surprised about this attack. It was undoubtedly tragic, but I think we’d be dishonoring the memory of Heather Heyer and what she stood for to see it as unprecedented.

Shock is a rational response to any domestic terrorist attack. But when people took to social media to exclaim #ThisIsNotUs, it left me conflicted. The sentiment is admirable and well meaning, but the deaths of Taliesin Meche and Ricky Best, Timothy Caughman, Richard Collins III, the nine victims in the Charleston massacre, and others tell a different story. They show that what happened in Charlottesville is unfortunately not as big of an American aberration as we would like to believe it is.

But I also think we get taken off-guard by events of the present when we haven’t properly studied the past. The history we’re taught is often filtered through mythology that maximizes America’s exceptionality and trivializes its bloody past, even to the point of erasure. My second year at UVA, one classmate said he was taught that the Civil War was a “War of Northern Aggression” to strip southern states’ rights. Another said she was tired of the “bitchy African-American blaming everything on colonization” because it was “like a hundred years ago.”

Charlottesville being in the national headlines for domestic terrorism might not have seemed predictable for that quaint and quiet college town. However, as positive as my feelings are towards the place, I can’t say I was entirely surprised about this attack.

The irony of both statements is not lost to me, as someone who studies history as an African-American. Even today, we still seem to be having a debate about what the Civil War was about, even as several confederate states made it abundantly clear in their articles of secession that it was about their mission to uphold slavery. And regarding colonization, dozens of African countries had not gained independence until the 1960s. When that girl made her statement, I assumed she didn’t know that every person in the room was older than the free democracy of post-Apartheid South Africa.

Though these students showed their ignorance, part of me was glad they voiced it clearly as opposed to using coded language. Many colleges with diverse populations wrestle with racial tensions undergirding their climate. But discussions about these tensions are often hidden beneath the veils of micro-aggressions. You can walk on Rugby road and hear frat houses blasting Lil’ Wayne, but get stopped with a “where you going, home boy?” at the door. Eat at O’Hill and see that the vast majority of tables are racially homogenous. Groups of students of European, or East Asian, or South Asian, or Latino, or African and African American descent are ubiquitous, yet the first example offered in the Multi-Cultural Education class discussion on self-segregation is, “Why do all the Black people eat together?” When President Barack Obama won his first term, some of us ran around Charlottesville screaming with joy for hours. Others stayed in their dorms and cried.


Though it is a generally liberal town now, Charlottesville wrestles with it’s own history of racism. Despite the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, which established that maintaining separate educational facilities was unconstitutional, many cities and states fought against integration. During his 1958 inauguration speech, Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. proclaimed that integration means “destruction everywhere.” Prince Edward County schools closed from 1959 to 1964 rather than integrate. Black families who petitioned to be allowed into the city’s white schools were denied. In 1956, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Charlottesville School Board to force its schools to integrate. By 1958, the U.S. District Court ruled that the city must integrate its Venable Elementary and Lane High schools, but rather than comply, Almond shut both down until the next school year. My classmates who grew up in Charlottesville have very complicated feelings toward and experiences of the place they call home.

But the discourse surrounding the Charlottesville attack as it relates to the larger discourse on the removal of Confederate monuments reminds me of how much we leave out Native voices. Driving down Main Street, you reach the Lewis and Clark statue before the entrance to Charlottesville’s historic downtown. The statue depicts both Lewis and Clark standing upright and stalwart, while Sacagawea cowers behind them. Seeing as she was their guide and a native to the land they were “exploring,” the idea that she was this apprehensive girl needing protection from native elements is offensive.

After maybe grabbing some pizza from the popular Mellow Mushroom, you are greeted by a statue of George Rogers Clark, the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest.” He’s depicted on horseback, charging toward a group of Native Americans. Charlottesville’s Clark Elementary — a school where I tutored through my fraternity’s “Go to High School, Go to College” program — was named after him. So it’s ironic that even in the racially, historically, and politically charged moment, a debate about the extremely problematic monuments to manifest destiny and indigenous genocide in Charlottesville or around the country has yet to reach the level of popular discourse. These issues are not black and white, literally or figuratively.

Yet these types of historical blind-spots were nowhere more evident than in the ways in which most “Hoos” (short for “Wahoos,” a nickname for UVA students) saw the school’s beloved founder, Thomas Jefferson. Peering out from the front of the Rotunda, his statue welcomes you to the Academic Village. His famous quotes, such as “Follow the truth wherever it may lead,” are emblazoned on the walls in hallways, gyms, and libraries. His memory is everywhere on the Grounds, especially when you walk on the beautiful grassy terrace known as “the Lawn.”

“TJ” is seen as a revolutionary hero who articulated America’s quest for liberty from the tyranny of Great Britain. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a Congressional delegate, the first Secretary of State, a minister to France, the Vice President to John Adams, served a key role in the Louisiana Purchase, was the third U.S. president, to name just a few of his roles. He was a well read man whose library at one point comprised almost 7,000 books. He passed away a year after the University of Virginia was opened.

But like America, Jefferson could be messy and contradictory. He echoed much of the basely assumed white supremacist logic of his time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he described the institution of slavery as “unremitting despotism.” But he referred to the natives as “savages” and thought enslaved Africans were racially inferior. Though he vouched for their gradual emancipation, Jefferson insisted that they should be deported to the West Indies or Africa. He advocated for abolition, but strongly supported “states’ rights”– the red herring often used to justify keeping slavery intact. Jefferson applauded the French Revolution, but saw Haitian revolutionaries as “cannibals of the terrible republic.”

We get taken off-guard by events of the present when we haven’t properly studied the past. The history we’re taught is often filtered through mythology that maximizes America’s exceptionality and trivializes its bloody past, even to the point of erasure.

In 2011, I visited Jefferson’s Monticello, which is a World Heritage Site and museum. Jefferson inherited 11,000 acres of land and at any given time, owned around two-hundred slaves. I saw the contrast between the house “TJ” lived in and the quarters his slaves occupied. During the tour, I wondered how he had reconciled his belief that interracial mixing was a “degradation to which no lover of his country” could consent to with his rape of Sally Hemings. Hemings has often been described as Jefferson’s “mistress,” but we have to be clear about what happened to the 14-year-old slave who birthed her owner’s progeny.

It’s a surreal experience roaming a place where your ancestors were slaves, or studying at a prestigious university that, aside from white women studying in the nursing and education schools, was almost exclusively attended by white males until the 1950s. UVA’s undergraduate program wasn’t integrated until 1955, the year my father was born. I’m a child of the Great Migration – an era during which Black southerners journeyed to Northern states for better economic opportunities and to escape the anti-black violence of Jim Crow. Though it wasn’t a return to my ancestral lands of Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, or somewhere in West Africa, going to school in Virginia was profound for me. There was a time when the average American had not imagined a place for me in our country’s identity, let alone imagined descendants of former slaves would be educated on the Grounds. That kind of progress in a small college town in Virginia shows one aspect of how far we have come as a country.

But problematizing “TJ” as a historical figure helped me gain a much deeper understanding of myself, my school, and my country. Seeing him as a paradoxical man instead of as an infallible figure is a segue to understanding how complicated American history is, and also how it manifests itself in the violent eruption we just witnessed. If we don’t know our history, we won’t understand where ideologies such as white supremacy stem from.

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James Baldwin once called whiteness a “metaphor for power,” and when thinking about white supremacy, power becomes the term by which everything is understood, recalled, and reframed. Using power becomes less of a political choice, and more like the law of gravity. White nationalists see post-colonial human history through an uber-Darwinistic lens. To hold power is to survive, to lose it is to die.

But white supremacy can only imagine a future where oppression is flipped. Its logic can only predict a “role reversal.” So while others may just think the “browning” of America is a sign of shifting demographics, for them, it means whiteness as power goes away. Vice News filmed a documentary of the rally last Friday. White supremacists chanted phrases like, “You will not replace us” and, “Jews will not replace us.” It is a dominating ontology used to justify a sense of “taking back our country.” To them, “equality” is a euphemism for “white genocide.” To them, oppression doesn’t get eliminated, it just changes hands.

In a radio debate with R.H. Darden, Baldwin candidly gave his diagnosis:

“You know what you did to me, you’re afraid I might do that to you. That’s why we get so uptight about Black power instead of going out in the streets and doing something about white power. You think I want to rape you the way you raped me, and I don’t. And that’s the root of the problem.”

So when conservative pundits conflate groups like the KKK, the oldest terrorist group in our nation’s history, with the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, this is the type of angst they are tapping into. Americans of Jefferson’s time couldn’t imagine that if slaves were free, the vast majority of Black folk would simply want to leave their bondage, raise their families, and be left alone. The unfounded fear of the inevitable Black and Brown retaliation has carried over into contemporary times. Baldwin’s words echoed last weekend, in the nightmarish bigotry, and in those who came to denounce it.

Like America, Thomas Jefferson could be messy and contradictory. He echoed much of the basely assumed white supremacist logic of his time. He referred to the natives as ‘savages’ and thought enslaved Africans were racially inferior.

During his life, Jefferson advocated for liberty and justice, but his status as a “Founding Father” doesn’t warrant a dismissal of his more pernicious views. He may have been debonair and professorial, but he shared an overlap in logic as those wielding tiki torches and giving Nazi salutes on the Grounds. But unlike the bigots of today, Jefferson evolved to believe that slavery was a moral injustice that would one day destroy the nation. He wrote “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” His “double consciousness” was on full display on both sides of the protests this weekend ­– in the “taking back our country” chanting of white supremacist, and roars for equality and and end to bigotry from counter-protesters. His conflicting legacy can be found in alumni from all racial, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds.

We far too often fall into the trap of thinking that white supremacists and neo-Nazi’s are just petulant, unemployed men living in their mother’s basements and camping in YouTube comment sections. But that has more to do with fantasy than reality. Characterizing them as social rejects is a convenient projection — a way to distance ourselves and our loved ones from the ignorance and hate they represent. It’s not “us” over here in the present, it’s “them” over there in the past.

But this ilk can be found on both coasts and everywhere between, not just “the South” (Malcolm X once said “When we say South, we mean south of the Canadian border”). They are old and young, come from working poor, middle-class, and wealthy families. They are businessmen, work in factories, are on Wall Street, and are people’s History teachers. They have a high school education, some went to community college, some have Ivy League educations. The FBI concluded that many are currently working in law enforcement. Some even have Jewish spouses and work every day with non-white people. They are among us, not isolated away in small towns we have never heard of. We shouldn’t forget that two people as drastically different as Tina Fey and Richard Spencer have degrees from the same university.

Problematizing Jefferson as a historical figure helped me gain a deeper understanding of myself, my school, and my country. Seeing him as a paradoxical man instead of as an infallible figure is a segue to understanding how complicated American history is.

The truths of today’s political moment couldn’t be more self-evident. Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, eulogized her daughter in a powerful and righteous way. Her message to bigots was, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her.” Heyer’s murder grabbed the attention of the country and many parts of the world. In the Bro’s words, this could be a “storm in a teacup,” or we can use Heyer’s sacrifice to work towards radical change. The stories we tell about the tragedies in Charlottesville matter now just as ever.

How we view figures like Jefferson as Hoos, Virginians, or Americans is a microcosm of how we view our country, its sins and redemptions. In order to progress, America needs to be more candid about the legacies we still wrestle with. As a journalist, I hope this domestic attack marks the end of profiles on “dapper white nationalists” and “hipster Nazis.” As an African-American, I’m crossing my fingers and toes that others finally recognize the things we’ve been saying for much longer than any presidency. As a historian, I strongly advocate our approaching U.S. history with the tenacity of veracity. We can’t change the present if the past passes through the prism of “great man” narratives.

We must examine the record and tell the whole story, or else acts of domestic terrorism will continue to feel like an unprecedented sickness with no remedy.

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Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. He is an alum of both UVA and USC.

Editor: Sari Botton