Bridge builders: Charlottesville’s unsung heroes

A new book tells the stories of the Bridge Builders who worked to change Charlottesville. A new book tells the stories of the Bridge Builders who worked to change Charlottesville.

By Kay Slaughter

Each day, people cross the Drewary J. Brown Bridge on West Main Street oblivious of this memorial to Charlottesville’s history. Nothing announces the bridge over the railroad tracks as a special space.

It was rebuilt in 1998 and renamed by City Council for Brown, a civil rights leader who had recently died. A few years later, council began to recognize other “Bridge Builders” who, like Brown, had bridged racial, economic, or other differences to create a more equitable Charlottesville. Bronze plaques on the bridge now honor 36 residents recognized by the city for their “memorable contributions to our community life.”

Drewary Brown returned from World War II ready for change in his hometown. Although by day he maintained a fraternity house at UVA, his real vocation became social and political action. He joined the local NAACP, and over the years helped transform the previously all-white Democratic Party. He co-founded the Monticello Area Community Action Agency and created a summer teen jobs program, and other local job training programs. “The most underappreciated person in Charlottesville,” said former city manager Cole Hendrix, who served from the 1971 to 1996. “People just don’t realize how much Drewary did for the community.”

At the same time, other activists had moved to town. The Reverend Benjamin Bunn, pastor of First Baptist Church, co-founded with his wife, Imogene, the local chapter of the NAACP that Brown and others later joined. The Bunns took direct action: Bunn singlehandedly desegregated Charlottesville’s public library by refusing to remain relegated to the “colored room.” Similarly, Imogene, scheduled for elective surgery, informed UVA that she would take whatever steps necessary, including legal action, to get a private room in the all-white Barringer wing. She got the room. Imogene, a registered nurse, also integrated the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Facility and Blue Ridge Sanatorium.               

Bunn invited into First Baptist’s Young Adult Fellowship several whites, including Francis Fife, to discuss race relations. Fife, who later became a City Council member and mayor, maintained a lifelong passion for open and affordable housing, helping to increase its local supply through the Charlottesville Housing Foundation and state agencies. Fife was recognized as a Bridge Builder in 2002 and the Bunns in 2003.

Well before the recent conversation about white privilege, A new book identifies the Bridge Builders who worked to change Charlottesville. A new book identifies the Bridge Builders who worked to change Charlottesville. Sarah Patton Boyle, a white southern daughter of privilege and a writer for The Saturday Evening Post, sought out T.J. Sellers, publisher of The Reflector, a local African-American newspaper. Through their conversations, Sellers became Boyle’s mentor, teaching her hard lessons about the underlying racism in her well-intended words. After challenging her own attitudes, Boyle reached out locally and statewide to build support among whites for desegregation. For her efforts, the KKK burned a cross in her yard.   

A leader in the NAACP, Eugene Williams and other plaintiffs sued the city schools to desegregate, and after seven years, they finally prevailed. Meanwhile, the University Cafeteria, operated by L.D. Cooley, had become one of the first eateries to open its doors to African Americans. Williams and Boyle, refused service by another restaurant, retreated to the friendly University Cafeteria.

Frances Brand, a staunch advocate for peace and justice, painted local portraits of “firsts,” like the first female mayor, Nancy O’Brien, and the first female African American school board member, Grace Tinsley. Booker Reaves, principal of Jefferson Elementary during segregation, played a crucial role in school desegregation, including persuading teachers like Teresa Jackson Walker-Price to teach in newly desegregated Lane High School.   

Mentored by Brown, Alicia Lugo, the first African American woman to chair the Charlottesville City School Board, developed a program called Teensight to help teen parents. William Washington, an ex-offender who created a job training program for former prisoners, was nominated as a Bridge Builder by a former circuit court judge.   

There are 22 more citizens so honored.

In 2016, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces recommended that the Drewary Brown Bridge become more visible. More recently, several citizens, including this writer, have called on the city to treat the bridge as a monument by providing prominent signage, such as lamppost flags displaying Bridge Builders’ images and public art on the north- and south-facing bridge walls. The city’s current West Main Streetscape plan provides a means to direct these modest improvements that could significantly commemorate the bridge and the Bridge Builders, raising their profile in the community.

In the ongoing, contentious conversation around public monuments, the Drewary Brown Bridge remains the only marker honoring local Charlottesville citizens who contributed to civil rights, justice, and equality issues. The city has the opportunity and means to transform it into a more visible monument to Charlottesville’s Bridge Builders.

Kay Slaughter, a former mayor and retired Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, is the editor of Bridge Builders 2001- 2016 Charlottesville, VA, which will be launched at the Unity Day event.

Hear their stories

Several Bridge Builders will discuss their history during a Unity Day event at 7pm Thursday, July 25, at Vinegar Hill Theatre. The evening will include a screening of the documentary, Working for a Better Day: The Drewary Brown Story, and a panel discussion with Bridge Builders John Conover, Elizabeth “Betz” Gleason, Teresa Walker-Price, and Eugene Williams.

Correction July 29: Booker Reaves was principal of Jefferson Elementary during segregation, not Burley High.

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