U.Va. rings in its bi­cen­ten­nial

Two-year cel­e­bra­tion kicks off with po­etry, mu­sic and a protest

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SUNDAY IN VIRGINIA - BY RUTH SERVEN The Daily Progress

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.

ZACKWAJSGRAS/THE DAILY PROGRESS

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.

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