Charlottesville’s Preston Avenue no longer honors a slave-holding Confederate soldier who became rector of the University of Virginia.
The City Council late Monday voted unanimously to install honorary street signs that would change the road’s namesake from Thomas Lewis Preston to Asalie Minor Preston, an African-American educator.
“Thank you, to the citizens of Charlottesville that did the hard work of digging and bringing forth the information, as well as letting us know the history of Thomas Preston as well as Ms. Asalie Preston,” Councilor Wes Bellamy said.
Bellamy first expressed a desire to rename the street at a December City Council meeting, suggesting renaming to street for Eugene Williams, a civil rights activist and founder of Dogwood Housing, or Teresa Walker-Price, the city’s first African-American librarian and member of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Advisory Committee. In January, he shifted his focus to Asalie Preston. The move also spares businesses and residents along the road from the expense of having to update information to reflect a new name.
Thomas Preston, who was born in Washington County, owned 29 slaves when he lived on the Wynhurst plantation, currently on Preston Place near Grady Avenue, in Charlottesville. After a brief service as an officer in the Confederate Army, Thomas Preston was UVa’s rector from 1864 to 1865. He went on to be among university staff members who convinced U.S. Gens. Philip Sheridan and George Custer to spare Grounds from major damage during the waning days of the Civil War, according to documents.
Asalie Preston taught in segregated schools in Albemarle County from 1922 and 1933, pausing to attend St. Paul’s College in Brunswick County. She returned to teaching in Albemarle after graduation in 1936 and continued to teach until her retirement in 1969, according to the resolution. In 1983, the Rives C. Minor and Asalie M. Preston Educational Fund was created to honor Asalie Preston and her father, Rives C. Minor, a former slave who also was an educator in Albemarle.
Additionally, the resolution states, Asalie Preston lived in the historic Rock House at 1010 Preston Ave. for several years.
Although the measure retains the Preston Avenue name, it comes with a price. The city’s Department of Public Works estimates it will cost $3,265.28 to create the brown signs stating “Honorary Ms. Asalie Preston Avenue” from High Street to Rugby Road, plus a public works employee to install them.
In March, the City Council is expected to consider a joint proposal from Bellamy and Councilor Mike Signer on creating a process for naming currently unnamed city owned properties, like City Hall, for people and groups “who have been left out of our local history books forever,” Bellamy said.
“This is an easy honorary name,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said of the Preston Avenue re-designation. “I just want to make sure we are aware that it’s not going to be easy every time.”
Council sets annual Aug. 12 commemorations
The City Council also voted unanimously to set the second weekend of every August as Unity Days, a series of community driven events to mark the anniversary of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.
With this move, the weekend falls under recurrent community events, such as City Market Days, the Dogwood Festival and Fridays After Five where areas of the city are reserved solely for that event.
The reserved areas would include the Downtown Mall; Fourth Street Northeast and Southeast; and McGuffey, Market Street and Court Square parks.
When Aug. 12 does not fall on a weekend, the city also will observe the anniversary date, according to the staff report.
The city plans sponsor the event by reserving the areas but will leave it up to community to plan the events.
“We started by inviting 30 community members to focus groups to start talking about this key goal of transitioning from first anniversary planning, which emphasized public safety, to a community driven annual event that educates, inspires and honors people in our community to create movement toward healing and unity on a path to economic and racial justice,” said Brian Wheeler, the city’s director of communications.
The proposed theme for 2019 is “Summer of Unity,” and would include a series of events from May through August. The chose of beginning in May start is because May 2017 is “when issues started happening to create that summer of hate,” said Charlene Green, manager of the city’s Office of Human Rights.
The city would work with community members to identify what this event series would entail. General examples of themes in the staff report are designating May for a look at the areas history of race relations, addressing institutional oppression in June, honoring community and neighborhood leaders in July and reserving August for “four days of activities focusing on education, honor, inspiration and solemn remembrance,” according to the staff report.
“This is what the community is asking for, and hopefully, we can live up to their expectations,” Green said.
In 2017, the Unite the Right rally was scheduled to be held in Charlottesville, ostensibly in response to the City Council’s vote to remove the Confederate statues in what are now Market Street and Court Square Park. Over the chaotic Aug. 11 and 12 weekend, numerous people were injured, and anti-racism protestor Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd just south of the Downtown Mall. In December 2018, James Alex Fields Jr. was sentenced in Charlottesville Circuit Court to life in prison for the fatal car attack. He still faces federal charges, and lawsuits over the statue vote still are pending.
Two Virginia State Police pilots also died Aug. 12 when the helicopter they were in to observe the 2017 rally crashed in Albemarle.
Last year, the city incurred more than $900,000 in unplanned expenses from the anniversary in 2018. According to the staff report, Unity Days is planned to be a more cost-effective plan for public safety for each subsequent anniversary.
The region and state had a heavy police presence in the city out of concerns of continued clashes between white nationalist and counter-protesters. The 2018 response was heavily criticized by counter-protesters, who said the response was disproportionate toward them.
“The Critical Incident Management Team, [Fire] Chief [Andrew] Baxter, [Police] Chief [RaShall] Brackney have been involved in review the drafts of this memo [about Unity Days], and they will be involved on a different track, planning for responding to what the community is saying they would like to have happen. … And that’s a whole different paradigm than last year when we didn’t know what’s going to happen,” Wheeler said.
With formally organizing standing events, the city hopes to shift perceptions of the focus on the city from both within the community and beyond.
“Again, we are hoping that when we bring that community committee together, they will decide what they expect — any organization, any individual who is interested in presenting any of those different focus months’ topics — and [make] sure that it’s as inclusive of all the different ways in which we see the community coming together to change the narrative.” Green said. “That has been the concern … once 2017 happened, on top of all the other aspects of this city’s history and the state’s history and the United States’ history, that we need to regain that narrative back and [make] sure that Charlottesville is not just about white supremacy, not just about Thomas Jefferson or the University of Virginia. That this history and all that the city is about is very robust and very inclusive, and we do our best to engage the community in that process.”