Getting past Vinegar Hill

The destruction of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal and the displacement of the many African-American families who lived there have caused irreparable damage to race relations in Charlottesville.

Holly Edwards on race, politics and goats: an exit interview.

The apology that Vice Mayor Holly Edwards initiated, which she called “long overdue,” was unanimously approved by City Council last week in an effort to publicly acknowledge the mistakes of the past and begin the healing process. Now a proposal to make the Dialogue on Race a permanent institutional presence in local government is in the hands of City Hall’s administrators. Is funding a new government entity the way to end racial discrimination?

“I know that the Dialogue on Race is a city funded thing, but included participants from all over the area. I would love to see a regional human rights commission and one that includes the county and the city, because we are all one community,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos. 


Mayor Dave Norris believes that efforts to promote racial equality should have a permanent place in local government. “Given the fiscal realities of where we are now and given the fact that there are other resources right now that wouldn’t want to duplicate that, I am not sure that’s where we want to start,” he said. 

In early 2009, City Council tasked then-Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones with forming discussion groups centered on discussing race relations in the city and more than 700 people from different backgrounds participated in the Dialogue on Race’s study circles. A product of one of the groups’ recommendations, the Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights, Diversity and Race Relations, whose draft proposal is still in its initial stages, is designed to investigate and report race discrimination in housing and employment, which the proposal states, is said to happen hundreds of times every year.

“We see the commission as a next step as the city works to develop an institutional response to further the mission of the Dialogue on Race and promote positive race relations and equity in Charlottesville,” said Walter Heinecke, a member of the dialogue’s policy action team.

The ultimate goal is for Charlottesville to become a national model for diversity and open the door for more enforcement of discriminatory practices. Heinecke said that the commission could be eligible to become the local branch of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s a way of institutionalizing a commitment to racial and ethnic equality in town,” said Heinecke.

According to a draft proposal, the commission would be comprised of seven members appointed by Council, would be led by an executive director and would report to the City Manager. In terms of enforcement, Mayor Dave Norris said that Council will have to “have a good discussion about how broad the powers and authorities of this new commission would be.”

The commission’s annual operating budget is estimated to be similar to that of the Planning Commission, or $200,000, in addition to a starting investment of $300,000. In a time when government investments are scrupulously investigated, allocating a significant amount of money for a commission on race relations will have critics.

“Is racial equality budget neutral?” asks Heinecke. He thinks that so much has been lost in the African-American community as a result of the razing of Vinegar Hill that if an economist were to calculate the loss, it would amount to millions of dollars.

“When you think about the city’s response to that, we think that $200,000 a year isn’t an exorbitant amount to ask to contribute to the solutions of the problems that have arisen in the wake of significant racial discrimination and negative race relations over 100 years,” Heinecke said.

Although Norris said he believes efforts of this kind should have a permanent place in local government, “given the fiscal realities of where we are now and given the fact that there are other resources right now that wouldn’t want to duplicate that, I am not sure that’s where we want to start,” he said.

For Szakos, the proposal’s cost is “really daunting.”
“We are really in stagnant budget world and I think we have to look at some creative ways to fund it, but I certainly want to enter in that conversation,” she said.

The key to making the commission effective is political will power, said Heinecke, adding that it will have to be supported by both city councilors and the community as a whole to move forward.

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