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Special Collections Exhibit to Commemorate Charlottesville's 250th Anniversary

Artifacts evoking a quarter millennium of Charlottesville history, from the oldest known city map to a section of the rope used to hang a murderous mayor, will be on display this fall in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

The Charlottesville 250th Anniversary Exhibit, cosponsored by Special Collections and the University's Office of Community Relations, opens Tuesday and runs through Jan. 5. It's free and open to the public and will be displayed concurrently with the city's anniversary observations

The items on display evoke major events in the city and include historical documents, photographs, maps, diary entries and works of fiction that feature the city, as well as items from past triumphs and scandals, according to exhibit curators Edward Gaynor, head of description in Special Collections, and Ann Southwell, manuscripts cataloger.  

"We start in 1762 when the town was established by the General Assembly and talk some about the city's namesake, Queen Charlotte," Gaynor said. Charlotte married the English king George III, whom Thomas Jefferson and others vilified during the American Revolution.

One of the oldest items in the exhibit is a Bible from Queen Charlotte's coronation, which was placed in front of the throne during the ceremony, he said. The Bible is owned by the city of Charlottesville but kept in Special Collections.

The exhibit is roughly divided into six sections: the city's founding through the Revolutionary War, the period between independence and U.Va.'s founding in 1819, the mid-19th century through the Civil War, Reconstruction through 1900, the 20th century up until World War II, and the modern era.

Some items tell stories that unfold over decades. For example, maps and other documents show a history of push-and-pull over territory between the city and Albemarle County. Among the items on display is the first printed map of the city, which dates to 1818.

"This was produced to show the first annexation of land from the county," Gaynor said. "It added about 20 acres to town. This map from 1818 was the first time there was annexation, and there are about 150 years of annexation struggles that follow." 

The exhibit also sheds light on some contested points in city history, such as the University's surrender during the Civil War. Though it remained open during the war, U.Va. also served as a hospital for Confederate troops where thousands of soldiers were treated.

The exhibit features the diary of law professor John B. Minor, who wrote an account of the University surrendering to the Union that differs from the official faculty minutes record, which acknowledges no such surrender.  

"Minor wrote that they did go out with a white flag, and that a servant betrayed the location of the University's horses and a six-pounder that the Yankees carried off," Southwell said. "Yes, the University owned a cannon."

Other items demonstrate the high regard in which many residents and visitors have held the city. The Rockfish Gap report, a document written by Jefferson for the General Assembly, proclaims Charlottesville the perfect place to locate his university. In more recent years, Charlottesville was ranked in 2004 as the best U.S. or Canadian city to live in by "Cities Ranked and Rated."

But not all visitors have been charmed. Harriet Martineau, an English author, wrote in 1838 about arriving in Charlottesville to visit with friends.

"A Unitarian clergyman was to preach in the courthouse in the afternoon," she wrote. "A rare event, I would imagine, for we heard afterward that one of the professor's ladies could not sleep the night before for the idea of a Unitarian being so near."

Some exhibits touch on scandal. Charlottesville was thrust into the national media spotlight in 1903 when then-Mayor Samuel McCue was accused of murdering his wife, Fannie. He was convicted and hanged in 1905 at the old stone courthouse on High Street, the last state execution by hanging in Virginia.

Other parts of the exhibit will examine more recent issues such as segregation and the desegregation of the schools, as well as the dismantling of Charlottesville's predominantly black Vinegar Hill neighborhood. Much of that history is seen through the eyes of Rebecca McGinnis, a black educator and city resident who recounted her experience with Jim Crow in a 1997 interview, when she was 105.

Other items include historic pictures of city churches and other structures, as well as accounts from a Revolutionary War-era prison camp near the city in which approximately 4,000 British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries were kept during the war. Today's Barracks Road is the camp's namesake.

The exhibit will be available during Special Collections operating hours. There will be reception in the auditorium of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library on Oct. 8 at 5:30 p.m.

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