Native American panel to meet before city decision on Lewis, Clark Sacagawea statue
The fate of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday is set to be decided next month.
After two hours of public input and dialogue, the City Council on Monday decided to hold two separate votes on whether to remove Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday and whether to commemorate the end of slavery in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, in its place. The vote is scheduled to occur at the July 1 council meeting.
Currently, city staff receive a paid holiday on April 13. However, Mayor Nikuyah Walker proposed that March 3 and 4 replace the April holiday.
Liberation and Freedom Day was first celebrated in Charlottesville in 2017— albeit not as a paid holiday — and marks when the 14,000 enslaved city and county residents began the process of emancipation when U.S. cavalry arrived in the area during the Civil War.
The choice to substitute Jefferson’s birthday with Liberation Day is intentional, Walker said.
“When someone goes through the archives in 100 years, they can read that the city of Charlottesville stopped celebrating the birthday of the person that is celebrated in April and they started celebrating the 14,000 people who were freed,” she said.
While four out of five councilors supported the resolution to substitute Liberation Day for Jefferson’s birthday, Councilor Kathy Galvin defended the preservation of the current April 13 celebration, choosing to read a passage from the Religious Freedom Act, which Jefferson wrote.
“It also is important to think about what Thomas Jefferson has done,” Galvin said. “I find it somewhat ironic, at this point in time, that the founding father who gave us the ability to question our holiday schedule is now not going to be able to be acknowledged for the establishment of that act.”
Galvin later voiced her concern that deleting Jefferson’s birthday might prompt Charlottesville residents to forget his attendant history — an outcome Councilor Wes Bellamy deemed impossible.
“There is literally no way in this city in which you will not be able to acknowledge or forget about Thomas Jefferson,” Bellamy said. “That doesn’t mean that we, as a city, have to celebrate, commemorate or acknowledge him with a day.”
Following the extensive discussion, the council decided to hold the two votes — to delete Jefferson’s birthday and to designate Liberation and Freedom Day as a city holiday — as action items instead of items on the consent agenda.
Later in the week, Albemarle brought up a similar proposal. County officials said a study of the holiday had been underway for about a year due to confusion stemming from county offices generally being closed but the County Office Building being open and the holiday’s closeness to the income tax deadline.
The Board of Supervisors voted to instead give employees a floating holiday and emphasized exploring other ways to continue to commemorate Jefferson.
Future of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea statue debated
The statue of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark in 1960.
Credit: Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority
The City Council on Monday also addressed the statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea at West Main and Ridge streets. In the fall, the council plans to hold a work session for Native Americans to determine the best plan of action for the 100-year-old sculpture.
The bronze sculpture was a gift from Paul Goodloe McIntire to Charlottesville residents, and like the monuments to George Rogers Clark and Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee he commissioned in the Charlottesville area, it has garnered controversy in recent years.
Erected in 1919, the bronze sculpture by Charles Keck depicts Lewis and Clark standing and gazing westward and Sacagawea in a crouched position. Complaints about the statue have occurred because of Sacagawea’s depiction. In 2009, a plaque was installed that explained the Shoshone woman’s work in guiding the explorers on their transcontinental journey.
“She should have been the one standing tall. They should have been the ones kneeling to her,” Charlottesville resident Mary Carey said.
The consideration of the statue’s removal comes from the necessity to move it to make way for a portion of the $31 million West Main Streetscape project. If that statue remains, the plan is to shift is several feet south to accommodate a right-turn lane that would replace the current slip lane from West Main Street to Ridge Street. The cost of the move, about $50,000, is included in the cost of the streetscape project.
“I would like for us to really consider … what other space that statue could occupy. Somewhere other than Charlottesville, maybe?” Walker said in November.
Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s neighborhood development services department, presented a recommendation to empanel an 11-member commission to design a public process for the disposition of the historical tribute. This recommendation invoked further conversation amongst councilors.
Galvin noted that the NDS proposal contained no mention of Native American inclusion in the formation of the committee and its work. Ikefuna later clarified that the recommended committee included six spots for community members at large — four of which were allocated to Native American peoples.
“[Native Americans’] voices need to and deserve to be heard,” said former memorials commission member Don Gathers.
During the discussion, Walker showed the council and residents a photo of a statue in Chamberlain, South Dakota. The 50-foot-tall monument, “Dignity,” depicts a Native American woman in standing position.
“This is different. This is clear. There is no question. You don’t have to put signage. You see the grace, dignity, humanity,” Walker said.
Councilor Heather Hill spoke on behalf of Sacagawea’s great-grandniece Rosa Anne Abrahamson, reading an email from her aloud in the Chambers.
Abrahamson said she wants the statue to remain. She said she believes that it symbolizes unity and togetherness.
Anthony Lopez, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe, offered a different view.
“However historically intended it was — as a forager or a tracker — it is still probably the worst statue of Sacagawea in the country. If you do the research, you will not find another one as demeaning,” he said.
Grace Hays — a Native American and Charlottesville resident — argued that Sacagawea was a trafficked adolescent rather than a young woman infatuated by an older man.
“We can do better,” city resident Walt Heinecke said. “We can have statues that support women of different ethnicities.”
Instead of creating a commission, councilors decided to have the Native American panel instead. City Manager Tarron Richardson said that the council has $75,000 earmarked for this project and does not foresee the need for additional funding. The funds will cover the cost of travel, food and accommodations for the panel participants, as well as payment for their work.