The Road from Thomas Jefferson to Southeast

On April 30, 2011, congregations in the Thomas Jefferson District voted on changing the district's name to the The Southeast District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The amendment was overwhelming passed by the delegates representing 40 congregations.
If voting on this felt familiar, it's because we just voted on the district's name in 2010. The 2010 proposal was brought by the TJ District Board. The board did not initiate the proposal in 2011. This time it was on the agenda as the result of petitions brought to the board by five congregations in the district (and now two additional congregations). This is allowed under TJD Bylaw article XIV Section 2b (see Thomas Jefferson District Bylaws).
Because the district name is specified in the bylaws, the proposal required a two-thirds majority to pass. This was the fourth time in the district's history that congregations voted on the name of the district:
  • in 1962, when the district was established
  • In 1996, when the district board proposed a bylaws amendment
  • In 2010, when the district board proposed a bylaws amendment
  • In 2011, when a group of congregations petitioned the board to include a bylaws amendment on the annual meeting agenda

This brief history outlines the issues and results of each of these efforts.

The district as we know it today was formed in 1962. At that time, Universalists were organized by states. Unitarians, on the other hand, were organized regionally. The name Thomas Jefferson was originally adopted in 1940 when a group of Unitarian congregations in Virginia split off from the Joseph Priestley District to form the Thomas Jefferson Conference. By the late 1950s, it was renamed the Thomas Jefferson Council and represented a region that encompassed the entire Southeastern United States. When the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961, a meeting was held in Asheville, NC, to organize regionally. At that meeting, a suggestion was made to adopt a geographic name such as Southeastern but it was decided to retain the name of the former AUA's Thomas Jefferson Council. 
The impetus for a reconsideration of the name in 1996 was a challenge brought by people of color and white allies at the 1993 General Assembly at which was scheduled a Thomas Jefferson Ball. GA participants were encouraged to attend this ball dressed in costumes of the period. African Americans asked the Assembly to consider what they should wear, “rags and chains” (full statement from the Reverend Hope Johnson to the 1993 General Assembly). The district board began a serious discussion about how the name disenfransiches some Unitarian Universalists, especially those of African descent, Native American, and women. They began a two-year period of study that culminated in a vote at the 1997 District's Annual Meeting in Charlotte. The motion to change the name was supported by the  majority of delegates present (acheiving a simple majority) but because of the two-thirds super majority required for passage, the motion failed by a slim margin.

After the vote, a second proposal was made that asked the board to bring the name change amendment back for reconsideration in five years. That motion carried.

In 2008, the District board again took up the question, as they had been asked to do nine years earlier. The board voted unanimously to support a change in the name and began a campaign to educate congregations about the issues. Because of the shooting at Tennessee Valley UU Church in the summer of 2008 that consumed significant staff resources, this education process was delayed until 2009. A vote on a name change proposal was taken at the 2010 Annual Meeting in St. Helena's Island, SC. The proposal to change the name again was approved by a majority of delegates but ultimately did not get the super majority required, this time by an even slimmer margin than in 1996. 

In February of 2011, five congregations, First UU Church of Richmond, VA, UU Fellowship of Beaufort, SC, Statesboro UU Fellowship in Statesboro, GA, Holston Valley UU Church in Johnson City, TN and Unitarian Universalists of Williamsburg, VA, petitioned the district board using identical language, as required by the bylaws, to include an amendment proposal on the 2011 Annual Meeting agenda. The board reviewed the petitions and determined that they met the requirements of the bylaws and included the amendment in the announcement that went out to congregations of the 2011 Annual Meeting, that was held on April 30, 2011, in Durham, NC. The board also completed a financial impact statement as required by the bylaws and determined that the cost to change the name would be less than $2500. Two more congregations, The Community Church of Chapel Hill, NC and the Unitarian Universlist Fellowship of the Penninsula, Newport News, VA added their names to the petition after the petition was approved. The proposed was passed by greater than the 2/3rds majority that was required. The name change is effective immediately but will take a few weeks to transition fully.