Commission criticism Do handpicked harbingers fit City Council’s agenda?

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Lifelong Charlottesville resident Lewis Martin says City Council stacked the deck when appointing members to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces.

eze amos Lifelong Charlottesville resident Lewis Martin says City Council stacked the deck when appointing members to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. eze amos

In a recent C-VILLE report, a blue ribbon commissioner said he feared the public would think he and his fellow members joined Mayor Mike Signer’s committee with a predisposed idea of how to treat race, memorials and public spaces in the city.

And he may be right—one man has come forward to call the lack of diversity on the commission a “glaring oversight.”

Lewis Martin, a lifelong Charlottesville resident, local attorney of nearly 40 years and president of the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association, has analyzed the applications of each selected commission member. He’s quick to note “there’s just too many of the same people,” and not a representative of those who have been around long enough to truly know the lay of the land, he says.

Whether they’re black or white, male or female, religious or not, members are obviously leaning liberal, according to Martin, who also applied for the commission.

Sitting with their applications printed, stapled and laid out on a table in front of him, he notes that of the nine members selected from 74 applicants, three were already designated as representatives of the Historic Resources Committee, Human Rights Commission and PLACE Design Task Force. That leaves six members at-large—four of whom are African-American and two are white.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2015, 70 percent of Charlottesville residents were white, while 19 percent were black. For a commission focused primarily on race, Martin says commission members should reflect those numbers.

He points out that Jane Smith, a white commissioner who told C-VILLE she was a “clean slate,” is an active NAACP member who wrote in her application that, while studying the city’s black history in the Daily Progress archives, she learned about “the story of African-Americans in Charlottesville being marginalized and distorted by an unabashedly white supremacist point of view—sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle—but relentlessly, interminably racist.” She writes that “shining a light on the full story” is the first step toward reconciliation.

“Does this sound like somebody who is going to be open-minded?” Martin asks, adding that Frank Dukes, the other white at-large commissioner, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist church on Rugby Road, which is possibly the most liberal house of worship in town.

Of the at-large African-Americans serving on the commission, Melvin Burruss is also a member of the Human Rights Commission, which is already represented, Andrea Douglas is an art historian who works for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and John Edwin Mason is a UVA history professor who has already made his stance clear.

In front of City Council April 18, Mason said the memorials hide history instead of making it more visible. And to the Cavalier Daily after the Lee Park rally sparked by Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, he said, “The statue should be removed because it’s a symbol of racism, intolerance and white supremacy.”

Martin believes Mason may have been selected over another UVA history professor because his opinion, already made public, suits City Council’s agenda.

While Mason does not deny giving his thoughts on the matter before being appointed to the blue ribbon commission, he says, “Not having an opinion was not the criteria. The criteria was to be able to listen to a variety of points of view and assess a variety of different points of evidence and come to a conclusion that we can recommend to City Council.”

The commission has met twice, and Mason says it would be absurd to think it’s fixed.

“It’s very clear that we have a wide range of opinion on the commission and we also have a wide range of expertise,” he says. “It’s also clear to anybody who has been at the commission meetings that there’s no consensus right now.”

Martin, however, isn’t convinced. Another African-American history professor at the university and a commission applicant, whom Martin suggests was not selected because he made public an opinion that doesn’t suit City Council, would have been an asset to the group and a member who could represent a side the committee has not yet seen.

“He wrote the book, literally,” Martin says about Ervin Jordan, author of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia in the Civil War, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia and 19th Virginia Infantry.

While Mason’s field and specialties include southern Africa, modern Africa and the history of photography, Jordan has been appointed by six consecutive Virginia governors to serve on the State Historical Records Advisory Board, has published more than 60 articles, essays and book reviews, and frequently serves as a historian-consultant for publications and novels, including the 2003 motion picture Gods and Generals, a period Civil War drama, and appeared onscreen as a historian-consultant for the documentary Virginia in the Civil War: A Sesquicentennial Remembrance.

“I feel that it’s sort of desecrating statues to remove them,” Jordan said on Coy Barefoot’s “Inside Charlottesville” show May 1. “I think it sets a bad precedent.”

Jordan then said removing a statue often costs five or six figures and he believes complementary monuments should be erected instead of tearing existing ones down.

“What can we do to commemorate some of what we historians call the new history—this inclusive history?” he says. “I think Charlottesville could be on the cutting edge of that.” He declined to comment for this article.

Of course, the mayor of Charlottesville (and friend of Martin’s) says a rigged panel is not the case.

“I have always advocated for the blue ribbon commission to reflect the broadest array of perspectives and experiences in our community,” Signer says. “I have not and will not discuss council’s closed session deliberations, but I can say that I believe the dedicated and experienced men and women who were chosen must diligently strive in the months ahead to accommodate the full range of views in our community.”

To be fair, Martin says the issue isn’t with individuals on the commission, “who all have just incredible credentials” and whom he respects with “nothing but the highest regard.” His issue is with the leaders who picked them.

As someone who has spent his entire life locally, Martin is concerned about the length of time some members have spent in Charlottesville and how that affects their understanding of the context of the memorials.

“This isn’t as if a racist local government in 1924 suddenly decided [it was] going to put up statues to oppress black people,” he says about the General Robert E. Lee monument. “It was a gift.”

Paul Goodloe McIntire, the biggest benefactor in this city’s history (aside from Thomas Jefferson), donated the statue in memory of his parents, to celebrate the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, under whom many locals fought, and whom many have called “the most beloved general in the history of the United States.”

Martin suspects that his grandparents, living on Park Street at the time, likely would have been at the unveiling, too, to bask in the glory of Lee and his ties to the town.

“I’ve got that DNA in me,” Martin says. “You have got to have somebody who can present this view of the Civil War and Civil War statues.”

Of the members who indicated their city residency on their BRC applications (all but Gordon Fields), the person who has been in Charlottesville the longest is Jane Smith, a resident since 1990, with the shortest residency being Don Gathers’ three-year stay.

“Goodness gracious sakes alive,” Martin says.

Updated July 11 at 1:51pm to reflect that Melvin Burruss is a member of the Human Rights Commission.

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