On Oct. 6, 1817, three U.S. presidents walked down what would become the University of Virginia’s iconic Lawn to witness the laying of UVA’s cornerstone and the beginning of one of the country’s earliest and most illustrious public institutions.
Exactly 200 years later, that same Lawn lit up the night as thousands who have made UVA their own gathered to celebrate its bicentennial.
Friday night’s Bicentennial Launch Celebration featured performances by more than 800 UVA students and faculty alongside special guest stars like Leslie Odom Jr., the Tony Award-winning actor and singer who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway megahit “Hamilton,” Grammy Award-nominated R&B singer Andra Day and rock band the Goo Goo Dolls. Famous alumni including Katie Couric and Jason George took the stage as well, while far-flung Hoos such as Tina Fey and Malcolm Brogdon delivered special video messages. UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, who also directs the Virginia Film Festival, led the UVA arts community in planning the evening's program.
A spectacular projection mapping show wove the performances together with dramatic flair as the Lawn virtually transformed to recreate some of the most memorable moments in UVA’s, and America’s, history.
Approximately 20,000 ‘Hoos from all stages of life were in the crowd, from those who graduated decades ago to those who just arrived. First-year student Andrew Bland was among those in the latter category. He signed up for tickets immediately after receiving an email about the bicentennial launch earlier this summer.
“I thought it would be really cool to be here,” Bland said, noting that it felt especially important after the violent white supremacist demonstrations that roiled UVA and Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12.
Faculty and staff also streamed onto the Lawn to celebrate the place they work to better every day. Mary Russell, who works in UVA’s Printing and Copying Services office, said she wanted to witness the night in person.
“I really feel like I have been a part of UVA for the past 20 years, and to reach 200 years is awesome,” Russell said. “I wanted to share this moment in time with my family and friends.”
When UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan took the stage to welcome the crowd, she noted that members of the UVA community were sharing the moment around the world, as UVA alumni clubs streamed some of the celebration live. Sullivan invited all of them to consider the implications of the bicentennial.
“Tonight we cast our gaze in three directions,” Sullivan said as she welcomed the crowd. “We look backward, to celebrate the University of Virginia’s monumental achievements over the past two centuries. We look inward to our shared commitment to the University that we love and cherish. And we look forward, with great hope and optimism, to the future that we and generations to come will shape for our University.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe greeted the audience after Sullivan, noting that the occasion was honoring the vision of one of his predecessors, the second governor of Virginia.
“Thomas Jefferson was a revolutionary, and this university is a revolution, of learning, of thought, of leaning in on the issues,” McAuliffe said. He thanked the “UVA family” for their contributions to the City of Charlottesville, the Commonwealth, the country and the globe, emphasizing that the current UVA student body represents 150 countries.
“As we look to the next 200 years, we do have challenges,” McAuliffe said, after referencing the Aug. 11 and 12 demonstrations. He urged the crowd to “be a revolutionary for justice, for inclusion and for bringing people together” in UVA’s next 200 years.
After McAuliffe’s address, the University Singers and the Charlottesville Symphony took the audience back in time with a specially commissioned piece, “We Hold These Truths,” with soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Glenn Seven Allen, narrator Bill Barker and conductor Michael Slon, and composed by J. Todd Frazier.
The piece focused on Jefferson as he crafted the Declaration of Independence and especially on his famous refrain, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That refrain reverberated over and over again throughout the Lawn as the music soared.
From there, the Rotunda itself told the story of UVA’s founding, as the projection mapping show began, generating several “wow” moments.
There were cheers, as Thomas Jefferson’s hand-drawn plans spread across its smooth white dome, recreating the third president’s vision for a university that would fuel America’s fledgling democracy. The next montage, highlighted at the top of this article, showed the enslaved laborers that built Jefferson’s vision, erecting the Rotunda and the Academical Village brick by brick.
Later, there were gasps from the audience as the Rotunda – the crown jewel of Jefferson’s vision – seemed to catch fire just as it did in 1895, when a massive blaze destroyed the iconic building and a nearby annex as students and faculty rushed to rescue books and artwork.
There was also reverent silence as UVA faculty member and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove read her poem, “The Bellringer,” about Henry Martin, who was born in slavery at Monticello and worked as the University bell ringer, waking students every morning at dawn and marking the hours of every day. The Chapel bell – the same that Martin rang – tolled as Dove finished her poem.
Odom, the first of the night’s special guest performers, took the stage to loud cheers at around 8 p.m. He performed hits from “Hamilton,” such as “Wait for It,” “Dear Theodosia,” and “Room Where It Happens,” along with “Autumn Leaves,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Forever Young.”
In between songs, he addressed the crowd, turning the compliment back on the audience as they applauded his performance.
“I have never in my lifetime seen a community rally like this and take charge of their present, take ownership of their past and lay claim to their future in this way,” Odom said, noting particularly the difficult conversations that have taken place at UVA and in Charlottesville since the events of Aug. 11 and 12. “You are rising to the occasion. I applaud you. You have touched me and moved me on this trip.”
“To me, the lasting legacy of ‘Hamilton’ is that it set the table for us to have difficult conversations with each other,” he said.
Both Odom and fellow special guest, R&B singer Andra Day, made time during the day to meet with students before the big celebration, conducting Q&A sessions with students in UVA’s music, drama and dance programs.
One of the most powerful moments of the night came shortly after Odom departed the stage, when the crowd rose to its feet again to welcome the descendants of some of the enslaved laborers who worked at UVA, Monticello, James Madison’s estate, Montpelier, and James Monroe's estate, Highland.
One by one, they shared the stories of their ancestors telling stories of horrible mistreatment and stories remarkable resilience, of descendants who played an important role in the growth of American democracy, graduated from top universities – including UVA – and succeeded in a wide variety of careers.
“We are here in the flesh representing the strong spirits of our ancestors. We are here because they were here 200 years ago. We honor their humanity and ultimate sacrifices of freedom and identity,” said Leontyne Clay Peck. “As UVA celebrates the bicentennial of a world class university, it is important to remember that the thousands of handmade bricks that built UVA, Monticello and Montpelier were crafted by the warm hands of enslaved men, women and children.”
She challenged the crowd “to think about where we were 200 years ago, and where we will be in the next 200 years.”
Following that charge, the projection mapping show proceeded through milestones at the University and in American history, highlighting the Civil War, both World Wars and the progression of civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights at the University and across the country.
Various special guests punctuated the historic moments.
Alumnus and “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jason George reenacted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Martin Luther King Community Choir of Charlottesville and the Ingrammetes sang “Glory” and “We Shall Overcome.”
UVA mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and former NASA astronaut Kathryn Thornton marked the arrival of the space race.
Alumna Katie Couric heralded the full co-education of the University in 1970, joined on stage by some of the first women to graduate from UVA in 1974, 1975 and 1976, who received a standing ovation.
CavMan, the UVA cheerleading squad and great athletes past and present, including former basketball player Ralph Sampson and 2017 graduate and Olympic gold medalist swimmer Leah Smith noted the remarkable achievements of UVA’s student athletes.
Toward the end of the evening, special guest Andra Day took the stage.
The R&B singer wowed the crowd with her powerful voice and lyrics, performing songs including “Strange Fruit,”originally sung by Billie Holiday, “Gold,” a cover of Queen’s “I Want It All” and her own hit anthem “Rise Up,” which Day called “a reminder that no matter how hard it gets, no matter how bleak the circumstances look … we have to continue fighting and standing up for what is right.”
After Day’s performance, and while the Goo Goo Dolls prepared for an after-concert, the official bicentennial launch closed in classic UVA style – with the Good Old Song, of course.
Thousands on the Lawn linked arms and sang the song, led by the Cavalier Marching Band. Virtual fireworks played over the dome of the Rotunda as the song ended with enthusiastic cheers.
UVA’s third century is here.
For more photos, video clips and coverage of the Bicentennial Launch Celebration and the weekend’s events, visit UVA’s Today’s Bicentennial Story Page.