By Jonathan Haynes
A little backstory: Charlottesville began as a plantation community with slavery as its foundational industry. Racial violence did not stop after Emancipation, but continued with lynchings and segregation, according to Monticello historian Niya Bates. The University of Virginia, she adds, was a big proponent of scientific racism at the turn of the 20th century. And, until last year, it had buildings named for famed eugenicists Harvey E. Jordan and Ivey Foreman Lewis.
Bates was one of the speakers at a June 22 panel, entitled Backstory Breakdown, which included Mayor Nikuyah Walker, freelance journalist Jordy Yager and student activist Zyahna Bryant. Part of the Virginia Humanities’ #UnmaskingCville series, the panel’s goal was to educate the public on racial issues affecting the Charlottesville area.
The first half of the program focused on Charlottesville’s past, and Yager traced modern wealth inequality to housing policy. He explained how, during the post World War II period, the Federal Housing Administration only offered subsidized loans for homes in neighborhoods that barred sales to black buyers—a policy known as redlining. While white Americans accumulated wealth through homeownership, which they would then pass down to their children, black Americans were effectively locked out of the housing market, which prevented them from integrating into white communities and accumulating wealth of their own.
During the evening’s second half, which focused on the future, moderators addressed the issue of Confederate statues.
Bates dismissed the notion that the statues were a source of pride in one’s heritage, explaining that they were erected in the 1920s to promulgate the Lost Cause narrative and intentionally placed in areas that intimidated black residents.
Bryant, who drafted a petition to remove the statues, expressed frustration that her tax dollars will go toward their maintenance. She said it would be cheaper to just remove them, since demolition would be a one-time expense.
Walker was outspoken on the impact mass incarceration and the war on drugs has had on the black community. “It’s about upholding a system of slavery,” she said, pointing out the racial disparities in drug arrests, despite similar rates of use. Yager concurred, noting that the language of the 13th Amendment prohibits involuntary confinement except as punishment for a crime.
This discussion continued into a Q&A, including a question about a new law Governor Ralph Northam had signed in Charlottesville the day before that requires the collection of DNA and fingerprints for two additional misdemeanors. Walker replied that Charlottesville is the locality that “fueled the law.” She cited former Charlottesville police chief Tim Longo’s “rounding up” almost 200 black men to request DNA after a victim described a serial rapist as a black male as evidence the policy is racist.
“I think it will continue to perpetuate those practices that lead to mass incarceration,” she said.