UVA president: Protest sullies ‘sacred’ ground
University of Virginia students protesting a month after violence erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville desecrated “sacred” ground when they covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson with a black tarp, school President Teresa Sullivan said.
Dozens of students carrying signs reading “End Hate Now,” “Black Lives Matter” and “TJ was a racist and rapist” rallied Tuesday outside the Rotunda, a university building inspired by Rome’s Pantheon and designed by Jefferson, the university’s founder. The group chanted, “No Trump, no KKK, no racist UVA.”
“As part of this demonstration, they shrouded the Jefferson statue, desecrating ground that many of us consider sacred,” Sullivan said in an email to alumni. “I strongly disagree with the protesters’ decision to cover the Jefferson statue.”
Sullivan downplayed the impact of Tuesday’s rally, saying it drew only about 40 protesters, not the 100 in some news reports. She said one person at the rally was arrested for public intoxication, and the tarp was gone when university workers went to remove it.
The target of the protest was last month’s “Unite the Right” rally led by white nationalists who opposed a decision by the city of Charlottesville to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.
Sullivan said activism at her university “should not be a surprise to any of us,” but she preferred “the process of discussion and debate, and the debate is happening here at UVA with a wide variety of guest speakers, panels and other opportunities to look at un- derlying issues.”
In another email to the “university community,” Sullivan gave a bit more ground to the protesters.
“I also recognize the rights of those present at the protest to express their emotions and opinions regarding the recent horrific events that occurred on our Grounds and in Charlottesville,” she said. “Our community continues to heal, and we must remain respectful of one another if substantive progress can be made on addressing the many challenges and opportunities that we all face.”
She defended Jefferson as a champion of human liberties, calling his ownership of slaves an “apparent contradiction.” She acknowledged that slaves played a major role in the school’s founding.
“Enslaved people not only built its buildings, but also served in a wide variety of capacities for UVA’s first 50 years of existence,” she wrote. “After gaining freedom, African Americans continued to work for the university, but they were not allowed to enroll as students until the mid-20th century.”
Sullivan said a memorial to enslaved laborers was approved in June and is an example of how the university reconciles its past with aspirations for a more inclusive, diverse environment.
Protesters cover a statue of Thomas Jefferson with a black tarp Tuesday at the University of Virginia.