Speakers express multiple views on renaming of library system

JMRL name change requires support from all five localities

The Board of Trustees of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library met yesterday at the Northside Library on Rio Road for the usual things such as a five year plan and a budget. But the main item throughout the meeting was whether the system’s name should be changed. 

“I don’t expect that we will have a vote on the issue of the library’s name change today,” said Thomas Unsworth, the chair of the JMRL Board. “In fact the Board would be able to call a public hearing if need be to collect further feedback from commentary on that issue.”

The public comment period came at the beginning of the meeting before comments on the topic from JMRL Director David Plunkett. The topic came up at the last trustee meeting in May when Myra Anderson asked for the change because Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned people as enslaved workers. We’ll hear from Anderson again in a minute.  

The first speaker identified himself as Nickolaus Cabrera and said he was a rising senior at the University of Virginia as well as president of the school’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom

“We lose our future when we burn our past,” Cabrerra said. “What you all are considering today is a direct burning of our past. Why is this discussion happening? On what basis?” 

Cabrerra said the name change would do nothing more than promote a “woke agenda” and this would be an example of censorship. The next several speakers sided with this view. Others did not, including Gloria Beard of Charlottesville. 

“It’s time for a change for all people and I hope you all consider what we’re trying to bring across to you,”  Beard said. “It’s time to change so all people feel like this community is for everybody.” 

Others felt Jefferson and Madison’s legacy was too important not to honor. 

“Without Jefferson we would not have the freedoms we have so that is just so important for people to research, come to libraries that are full of books,” said Ann McLean of Richmond. “Yes, he loved books.” 

McLean said the Declaration of Independence was more important than the works of Shakespeare, the Magna Carta, and the writings of Cicero.

“Without the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, we would have no rights and no liberties and be completely at the mercy of the government,” McLean continued. “Which we do not want to be!”

Myra Anderson described herself as the president of the Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance and a descendant of enslaved laborers.

“Six of my ancestors were sold on the auction block in 1829 at the second estate sale of Thomas Jefferson,” Anderson said. “At the time the Declaration of Independence was written and it was declared that all men are created equal, my sixth great grandfather and grandmother were enslaved at the time at Monticello.” 

Anderson said libraries should be inclusive spaces and the name should change to reflect the updated values of the system. She said to her, the name Jefferson does not just conjure up greatness. 

“It represents the trauma, the oppression, the pain, and the part of Jefferson that most white people want to gloss over when they talk about his greatness, but unfortunately that’s the part that put Black people on a trajectory of struggle,” Anderson said. 

Anderson said the precedent for such a change was set locally when the health district dropped his name last year. 

Director’s report

After the public comment period was over, Plunkett gave his report on how the name is currently codified and how it might be changed. He said state law for regional library boards deal with how trustees are appointed and the rules for spending money.  There’s no mention of who gets to name them.

Plunkett said the current name has informally been in place since 1972 when the regional system was created to pool resources across a wider area. 

“The big reason though that Charlottesville, Albemarle, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson joined forces to create JMRL was because of state aid funding which was amplified in the 70’s,” Plunkett said. “Basically the state incentivized localities to get together and share their resources in order to provide library services.” 

A slide from Plunkett’s presentation to the JMRL Board of Trustees (view the presentation on the JMRL website)

The original agreement from 1972 did not yet include Greene County, and Plunkett said it was originally called the Thomas Jefferson Regional Library. 

“The library board heard a comment from a library board member who made a plea to them to change the name from the Thomas Jefferson Regional Library to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library,” Plunkett said. 

Plunkett said that board member wanted to recognize the “special friendship” between Madison and Jefferson. He noted Madison did not live in the service area now operated by JMRL. 

Greene County joined in 1974 and the name was officially changed in an amended agreement. Plunkett said he’s sought legal advice about who gets to change the name. 

“The legal counsel that the library board has received is that the authority for changing the library name rests with member jurisdictions, with Charlottesville, Albemarle, Louisa, Greene, and Nelson,” Plunkett said. 

Plunkett said the agreement is overdue for its mandatory five-year review and a five-member committee with one appointed by each jurisdiction should begin that work and consider a new name as part of that process. 

“If there were changes made to the regional agreement at that point, they would need to take them back to their Boards of Supervisors or City Councils to vote on before that could come back as an amended regional agreement,” Plunkett said. 

Plunkett said the Blue Ridge Health District did not have to ask for permission to make a change and it was made administratively. He added Albemarle County Public Schools have a policy in place regarding school names (learn more). The University of Virginia has a Namings & Memorials committee

Board discussion

During the Board discussion, Trustee Lisa Woolfork of Charlottesville noted the library was not named to honor the two former presidents, but their friendship. 

“It wasn’t about ‘Oh, look what they did for the Bill of Rights and the Declaration and et cetera,” Woolfork said. “It was, ‘these guys are friends!”’

Woolfork noted that Charlottesville’s Unitarian church recently dropped Jefferson’s name from its official name. 

“I really do believe that we are in a moment where our democracy is being challenged in a variety of ways and I feel as though we have the opportunity to make some true progress to reflect some of the growth that Charlottesville has made,” Woolfork said. 

One of Albemarle’s trustees, Michael Powers, said at issue is that different people view as the primary legacy of Jefferson. 

“I think it’s clear to me that many people primarily associated Jefferson and Madison with their practice of slavery, but it’s also clear that whatever the origin of the name was at the time, over the last 50 years many people have come also to primarily associate these figures with powerful and fundamental American values, principles and ideals,” Powers said. 

Powers said the JMRL Board has to take both considerations into account and he spent some time defending how others have sought to defend Jefferson’s legacy. He cited the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as the main legal tool used in the Civil Rights movement. 

“So we hear in the 14th amendment, equal protection for life, liberty, they are very familiar echoes of Jefferson’s ‘All men are created equal’ and ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Powers continued. 

JMRL Chair Thomas Unsworth said while the JMRL can’t directly change the name, they can make recommendations or suggestions to local officials as part of the agreement review. 

Woolfork was clear that she feels the name must change and she resisted framing the issue as one of two equal sides. 

“It seems to me that that true energy of what a library does and brings and provides should be robust enough and substantial enough that we can serve our services areas and provide the things we continue to provide and not being called Jefferson Madison will not impede our ability to do that,” Woolfork said. 

The trustee from Louisa County pointed out that two of the five localities have already voted on resolutions opposing a name change. Neither resolution in either Greene or Louisa specified any further action. (Louisa Supervisors unanimously oppose name change, June 9, 2022)

The trustee from Nelson County said she was concerned about the resolutions.

“They put that out before even hearing what the other people in the area,” said Aleta Childs. 

The Board had a long discussion of the matter and in the end opted to pick up the conversation at its next meeting in July. By then, Tony Townsend of Albemarle will be the chair. 

“My agenda here is to make sure that the area’s most inclusive, diverse, and free resource doesn’t get sidetracked or handicapped by this discussion,” Townsend said. “I think it’s a good discussion. I think it needs to happen. I think we can probably come up with a plan that will allow everyone to have at least input.” 

Townsend said the process is just beginning. 

Woolfork said she wanted to know if Louisa and Greene would leave the regional system as a result. 

“Are they that committed to their adulation of Jefferson and Madison that they will just say ‘we don’t want to have a library with you anymore, thanks, and nice knowing you,’” Woolfork asked. 

The JMRL Board of Trustees next meets on July 25 at 3 p.m. If you want to leave a comment, there is a form on the special website set up with information about the potential for a name change.


Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the June 28, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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