The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to oppose the potential renaming of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library due to the namesakes’ slavery heritage.
The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Board decided at its meeting last month to add discussion of a potential library name change to the June meeting agenda. The decision came after local descendants of a group of bonded laborers petitioned the council to change the name due to the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as slave owners.
“The institution of slavery was evil, it was awful, it was despicable, and I don’t think anyone would ever try to justify it. But I think it’s foolish to take today’s moral standards and try to apply them to people who lived 300 years ago,” said Louisa’s supervisor, Duane Adams, who led the resolution.
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The resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors cites the library’s history as part of its justification for opposing a name change.
“Central Virginia’s public libraries have a rich heritage derived from the private libraries of prominent ancestors. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, who each had extensive personal libraries,” the resolution reads. “The Louisa County Board of Supervisors opposes any proposed name change to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.”
Adams said he viewed the name change as “dividing.” He compared the library bearing the names of slave owners Jefferson and Madison to the tobacco depicted on the county seal.
“I think we’re too divisive, I think we’re too petty, I think we’re looking to fight,” Adams said. Pointing to the county seal on the wall behind the supervisors, he said: “We all know about the evils of nicotine, but I don’t see anyone here who is so offended that they can’t sit in the room with a photo of tobacco leaves. ”
Adams said that if the library board decided to change the name, he would want the board of trustees to consider leaving the library system or withdrawing its financial contribution. Louisa County currently donates $392,000 to the library annually. However, the resolution adopted on Monday does not withdraw the funding.
While the resolution formalizes the Supervisory Board’s opposition to a name change, the Board does not have a vote in the final decision. This will be in the hands of the library board.
However, no formal vote is yet scheduled. The board wants more information and will then start discussing whether a name change is needed, how it might happen and how to proceed.
At the library’s board meeting last month, members of the Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance, a group of descendants of enslaved laborers based in Charlottesville, asked the board to change the name.
“For a number of years, our community has been racially calculated. Efforts have resulted in the removal of names and statutes from schools and organizations,” Myra Anderson, director of Reclaimed Roots, said at the board meeting. “Our library remained silent and continued to bear the names of two slave owners. We believe the library is long overdue for a name change, and that maintaining a bad white supremacist reputation is maintaining white supremacy in a space that is meant to feel inclusive and equitable.
Anderson also said she personally knows people who wouldn’t enter the library because of their name.
Thomas Unsworth, chairman of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library board, told the Daily Progress last month that hearing the name discourage people from visiting is “heartbreaking”.
“The library is meant to be an open, welcoming place. Our fundamental purpose is to support continuous education, continuous learning, to provide people with safe places to grow and explore. Hearing something like that breaks my heart,” he said.
After hearing from the descendants group, the trustees decided they were interested in exploring the possibility of a name change and asked library director David Plunkett to review the procedure. Plunkett said the next steps for him are to determine if there are any restrictions in the library’s bylaws that would restrict or make it difficult for the library to change its name.
Plunkett will present this information, along with information about the name and its history, to the board of trustees at the June 27 meeting, which will be held at the Northside Library with a Zoom option.