CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Protesters who draped a black shroud over a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia were “desecrating” ground many people consider “sacred,” the president of the Charlottesville college said Wednesday.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan sent separate statements to the university community and to alumni after dozens of protesters gathered on campus Tuesday night to protest the university’s response to white nationalist rallies this summer.
The demonstrators covered the statue of Jefferson, the third president of the United States and UVA’s founder, and put up signs that called him a “rapist” and “racist,” The Daily Progress reported.
The statue stands in front of the Rotunda, which Jefferson designed and where white nationalists carrying tiki torches clashed with counter-demonstrators just over a month ago. That march on campus was followed the next day by a larger rally in downtown Charlottesville that descended into violence.
Sullivan said she strongly disagreed with the demonstrators’ decision to shroud the statue, writing in the statement sent to alumni that they were “desecrating” ground that “many of us consider sacred.” One person was arrested for public intoxication and the shroud has since been removed, she said.
She wrote that Jefferson was a slave owner and that the university was dependent on slavery in its early years. Many historians also say Jefferson likely fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
But Sullivan said Jefferson also “made many contributions to the progress of the early American Republic: he served as the third President of the United States, championed religious freedom, and authored the Declaration of Independence.”
The university has “acknowledged its controversial history,” though there is “more work to be done,” she wrote.
The protesters called for the university to meet demands issued by the Black Student Alliance and other organizations after the white nationalist rallies, including the removal of Confederate plaques on the Rotunda and the addition of context to the Jefferson statue.
In a statement late Wednesday night, the Black Student Alliance said Sullivan’s “sacred” ground comment showed “the need to continue to balance the historical landscape at UVA in order to make it inclusive for all groups.”
It is “unlikely that the hundreds of slaves who built the space and worked there ever considered it sacred,” the statement said.
A group of university leaders is reviewing UVA’s response to the August rallies, and the college has also hired an outside firm to conduct a separate review.