A month ago, around 100 locals set off on two buses to Montgomery, Alabama, carrying soil from the site where John Henry James was lynched in 1898 in Albemarle County. On August 5, nearly 200 people gathered at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to hear the pilgrims’ report back to the community about what they experienced, what they learned and where they go next with what they brought back from the historic journey.
A common theme emerged: The violent events from last summer’s Unite the Right rally were not isolated events, but part of a continuum of white supremacy dating back to this country’s founding, say pilgrimage participants and organizers.
“Charlottesville has a long history of violent white supremacy,” said Jalane Schmidt, UVA religious studies professor and pilgrimage co-organizer. Along with James’ lynching, she listed the KKK in the 1920s—active at the same time controversial monuments of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were erected—sit-ins in the ‘60s to integrate restaurants, and August 11 and 12 last year. “And in all of these cases, police were complicit,” she added.
The journey began on July 8, the anniversary of the KKK rally last year, but Andrea Douglas, executive director of the heritage center and the pilgrimage’s other organizer, pointed out that July 9 was a more significant anniversary—the 150th of the ratification of the 14th Amendment that gave African Americans citizenship, due process and equal protection.
“Those are the same things we’re talking about today,” she said.
The six-day pilgrimage hit civil rights landmarks and museums between Charlottesville and Montgomery, and included Danville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta and Birmingham. It began with a stop at Appomattox, where a national park depicts the surrender of the Confederacy with remarkably little information about slavery, the issue that had sparked the Civil War, the pilgrims noted.
“They were selling Confederate memorabilia” at a taxpayer-funded national park, reported Frank Dukes, UVA Institute for Environmental Negotiation professor.
Dukes identified the Sweet Auburn district in Atlanta, a historic African American community that has been preserved and works to remain affordable, as a model for Charlottesville. He also mentioned memorials to the legacy of racial terrorism and the civil rights struggle, such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial to Peace and Justice and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “We don’t have enough of that,” he said.
Multiple people reporting to the community said school curricula is an issue.
“We’d like to see schools do a better job of teaching black history—and not just at Black History Month,” said Cauline Yates.
Rising Charlottesville High senior Zyahna Bryant echoed the call for “more comprehensive black history” in schools. She, too, pointed out that the lynching of John Henry James “was not one singled-out event,” but is part of a history of white supremacy seen today in mass incarceration and “students of color failed over and over again.”
Bryant said the Real Justice PAC lobbies prosecutors. “I met with [Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney] Joe Platania about how we can get people of color out of the criminal justice system,” she said.
DeTeasa Gathers and Patsy Goolsby were among the 21 faculty and staff UVA sent on the pilgrimage, which they describe as transformative and enlightening, while evoking feelings of anger, pain and shame, empathy and gratitude. “The pilgrimage was hard,” said Goolsby.
“Did I really miss all of this in history?” Gathers asked. “Did I miss what happened to my people?”
“The original sin was not slavery, but the narrative of white supremacy,” said Goolsby. She says European-Americans have a “moral obligation” to work with other white people to understand this history.
The message they bring back to UVA: “Acknowledge people of color’s ability to serve in leadership roles,” said Gathers, to applause from the audience. Blacks have to work twice as hard as whites and “this is UVA’s reality.”
Civil rights is an ongoing effort, she added, and “make sure everyone votes.”
Her husband Don Gathers, chair of the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces and member of the newly formed Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board, says he was struck by the interactions among the people sharing a journey that affected them “spiritually, psychologically and emotionally.”
The pilgrims visited places where they experienced joy, sorrow, lamentations and anger, “all fueled with clear recognition of the persistence of white supremacy over our history,” he says.
Gathers was moved by “sacred moments”: seeing the struggle for justice, standing in front of August 12 victim Heather Heyer’s picture at the Southern Poverty Law Center, standing in the pulpit at Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery where Dr. Martin Luther King preached and marching across the Pettus bridge. “We don’t get this kind of learning in schools,” he said.
“The future is long and the work is never done,” said Gathers. “Those on the pilgrimage can no longer sit on the periphery. We are forever changed.”