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Thomas Jefferson District changes name

Delegates vote overwhelmingly to become Southeast District.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
5.6.11

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Thomas Jefferson. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Thomas Jefferson. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1821 (detail) (National Gallery of Art)

The Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association is a thing of the past. As of April 30, the name changed to the Southeast District, following an overwhelming vote by delegates at the district’s annual meeting.

It was the third time the name change had come up for a vote, and the first time the vote yielded the two-thirds majority needed to pass. According to District Executive Annette Marquis, there were so many cards raised in favor, it was not necessary to do a specific count of the votes. “It was a very decisive positive vote for change,” she said.

Proponents of the name change claimed that even though Thomas Jefferson argued eloquently for religious freedom, he was a slave holder, with troubling views of Native Americans and women. In addition, they argued, he was not really a Unitarian, although he has often been identified as a “famous Unitarian.” Those in favor of keeping Thomas Jefferson’s name celebrated his influential views on the separation of church and state and his contributions in writing the Declaration of Independence. They also cautioned against applying modern morality to a man of the seventeen hundreds.

Marquis called the vote “a very symbolic action.” “This is a step in our work to build beloved community,” she said.

District President Jim Key said he was ecstatic about the vote. “We bent the arc toward justice just a little bit,” he said. He was heartened by the lengthy and heartfelt conversations delegates and congregations have had about the name and its potential to create hurt among current members and alienate prospective members. “Hearts were touched and minds were changed,” said Key, a member of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, S.C. “This district has had more conversations and is further along at becoming multiracial and multicultural than any other district because of those conversations.”

The district, which includes congregations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, was named after the third president of the United States in 1962, when it was established. The first vote to shed Jefferson’s name came in 1997.

The district’s board first proposed changing the name in the aftermath of a controversial “Thomas Jefferson Ball” at the 1993 UUA General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., which people were invited to attend in period costume. Hope Johnson, a delegate to the 1993 GA and now a UU minister, asked whether she and other African Americans should wear “rags and chains.”

“The issue was discussed long before that GA, but the ball brought it to a different level,” recalled Leon Spencer, former district president and a member of the UU Fellowship of Statesboro, Ga. “It brought it to the awareness of a larger collective of people.” After the 1993 GA, the board began a series of conversations about the name. Those discussions were followed by a two-year study, which culminated in the board proposing a bylaw change in 1996. At the 1997 district meeting, that amendment failed, gaining a majority of yes votes, but not the two-thirds needed.

In 2010, the board again brought the name-change motion. The motion fell three votes short of passing.

This year, the bylaw amendment initially was brought by a group of five congregations: First UU Church of Richmond, Va.; UU Fellowship of Beaufort; UU Fellowship of Statesboro; Holston Valley UU Church in Johnson City, Tenn.; and Unitarian Universalists of Williamsburg, Va. By the time the bylaw came to a vote at the annual meeting at the end of April, a total of 13 congregations had joined forces behind it. “These congregations did the organizing work and voiced their clear support, which is truly the way it should be,” said Marquis. “It was the congregations that put the democratic process into action.”

The 2011 meeting included a mini-assembly where delegates could speak for or against the amendment. Spencer was impressed by the number of people who spoke at the assembly for the first time, and by the many groups they represented: African Americans, Asian Americans, women, and young people. “It wasn’t just the same people who normally get up and speak,” he said.

Spencer told the mini-assembly that the debate was not a discussion of the merits of Thomas Jefferson. Rather, he said, “the focus needs to be on who is in the room and who might come.”

He was impressed by the debate and the success of the democratic process. Spencer said “it presents to us a real opportunity to continue truth telling and continue healing and reconciliation.” And the process, he believes, reflected the strength of this faith community. “It was a statement that we as a faith community are not afraid to have faith in our faith,” he said. “Sometimes when we reach points where there is conflict, it seems like we don’t have the faith that we can really deal with those issues. It was a good experience for the district.”

Pete Leary, a member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., has been a vocal supporter of retaining the Thomas Jefferson name. He introduced a resolution to create a preamble to the name-change amendment that would honor the work Jefferson did to support religious freedom. The resolution narrowly missed gaining the 50 percent of votes it needed to pass.

The district is in the process of changing its name to the Southeast District on its letterhead, checks, and website. Prior to the votes, advocates for change had determined the cost of the name change to be less than $2,500, according to Marquis.

President Key said he and the board will reach out to people who are disappointed with the name change to begin a process of reconciliation. He noted that his own opinions have shifted over time. “I’m a Southerner, and an old white man who went to Jefferson High School,” he said. “I had the typical white-privilege view.”

But as Key got involved in congregational and district leadership, he said he began to examine his own “cultural competencies” and listen to other people’s stories. “It was certainly clear that the name was a problem for people of color and their allies and also for folks who didn’t feel they were able to bring their stories to our congregations. If we are espousing a vision of beloved community, the name was inconsistent with our values and our vision.”

Spencer said that ultimately the debate and the vote and the name change were about identity. “And it’s not just about our identity as individuals. It’s about our collective identity as Unitarian Universalists who stand on the side of justice,” he said.

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