U.Va. rings in its bicentennial
Two-year celebration kicks off with poetry, music and a protest
As night fell on the University of Virginia Lawn on Friday, an actor dressed in a white wig and black coat stood on the steps of the Rotunda and read about how Benjamin Franklin and John Adams had turned down the role of writing the Declaration of Independence:
“Then the role fell to me,” said Bill Barker, reading Thomas Jefferson’s words.
As the orchestra swelled and a choir stood behind him, a spotlight fell on a singer, who began to repeat the famous words of the Declaration.
“We hold these truths to be self- evident,” she sang. “That all men are created equal.”
The celebratory weekend marking the university’s bicentennial was star- studded and joyful, but it was hard to escape reminders of the violent weekend in August that brought white supremacists to the steps of the Rotunda. And student protesters at Friday evening’s celebration argued that U. Va. still is not doing enough to recognize its history of slavery.
U. Va. police said three people were arrested on trespassing charges.
The university’s kickoff to a two- year bicentennial celebration, coming after speeches and an afternoon commemorating the 1817 laying of U. Va.’ s cornerstone, reinterpreted that history through music, dance and cutting- edge projection mapping.
“The arts have the power to unify and inspire us as one family and one future,” U. Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said at Friday night’s event.
After brief remarks and a rendition of “Shenandoah,” the lights around the Lawn dimmed. “Knowledge is power,” proclaimed the Jefferson actor. “Knowledge is safety. Knowledge is happiness.”
Lights around the Rotunda flared, then projected a sketch of the Rotunda, then the birth of the university, parties and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” on the building itself.
The night featured performances from the Charlottesville Symphony, Cavalier Marching Band, Andra Day and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Leslie Odom Jr., star of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” sang hit songs from the musical. He also referenced the white supremacist rallies that occurred in Charlottesville and U. Va. in recent months. He said he was inspired by the university and city’s response to the violence.
“I have never in my lifetime seen a community rally like that,” Odom said. “You have a friend in me forever.”
After Odom’s set, the projections on the Rotunda moved from Jefferson’s founding of the university to aerial dogfights in World War I to civil rights protests.
“We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” said actor and U. Va. ’ 94 grad Jason George, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Let freedom ring!”
Then TV journalist Katie Couric, who graduated from U. Va. in 1979, recognized other female graduates from the ’ 70s. Women were not allowed to attend the university until 1970.
“My years at U. Va. and in Charlottesville, both very special places, really shaped me,” Couric said. “I’m always proud to say that I went to the University of Virginia.”
As Couric introduced the next act, three activists climbed in front of one of the screens on the Lawn and unfurled a white banner that read, “200 Years of White Supremacy.”
The activists stood for nearly 10 minutes while security officers tried to talk them down. Eventually, the banner was taken away and two black students and a white student were led away in handcuffs.
“U. Va. Students United is here to show that we can’t celebrate 200 years of U. Va. without acknowledging the 200 years of white supremacy that the university has brought with it,” said a student activist who helped organize the protest.
The event did include several nods to the university’s history with slavery.
Several descendants of slaves who lived and worked at Highland, Montpelier and Monticello stood and spoke. Former U. S. poet laureate Rita Dove performed a poem, “The Bellringer,” written to commemorate the university’s enslaved bellringer, Henry Martin.
Images of the University of Virginia’s historywere projected directly onto the Rotunda on Friday night as part of the kickoff of the university’s two-year bicentennial celebration.