Thomas Jefferson holiday dropped by home town

A statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that was the focus of a white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Washington (AFP) - Thomas Jefferson's home town of Charlottesville, Virginia will no longer mark the birthday of the author of the US Declaration of Independence as a paid holiday, a city spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

Instead the Charlottesville city council voted 4-1 late Monday to replace it with a holiday commemorating the city's liberation by the Union army at the end of the US Civil War, Brian Wheeler, the city's director of communications, said.

There was no official explanation for the move but in a June 17 debate on the proposal, city council member Wes Bellamy questioned why the city should celebrate a figure who viewed blacks as inferior.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker noted that more than half the population of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County were enslaved at the outset of the Civil War and 14,000 were emancipated after the city was liberated by Union soldiers.

Kathy Galvin, who cast the sole vote against the measure, defended Jefferson as a man whose contributions were worthy of recognition.

The snub of Charlottesville's most famous son comes as the city undergoes a reappraisal of its traditions in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist rally that ended in the death of a young woman.

The "Unite the Right" rally was called ostensibly to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park.

But it made Charlottesville a symbol of a seemingly emboldened white supremacist movement under US President Donald Trump, who blamed "many sides" for the violence.

James Alex Fields Jr, a 22-year-old neo-Nazi, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday on federal hate crimes charges for driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters after the rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

He is being sentenced separately later in the month on a state charge of first degree murder.

- Exalted status -

Jefferson, whose hilltop home Monticello overlooks Charlottesville, was the third US president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, for many the embodiment of American ideals of freedom and equality.

But his exalted historical status has been the subject of revision in recent years, with much of the criticism centering on the contradiction between those ideals and his ownership of hundreds of slaves.

Jefferson fathered at least six children by Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman at Monticello, freeing all four of the surviving children decades later -- but no other enslaved family unit, according to the Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello.

Jefferson's birthday -- April 13, 1743 -- is not a US national holiday, but has been celebrated as paid holiday by his home city, which is home to the Jefferson-founded and designed University of Virginia.

The Charlottesville city council established March 3 as "Liberation and Freedom Day," and created a second bonus holiday as replacement for Jefferson Day, which had been observed by the city for at least 74 years.

The holidays apply only to the city government.