Telling all the stories: The people and places working to restore Charlottesville’s African American history

Charlene Green, a multicultural educator who directed the city’s first Dialogue on Race, says she tries to “connect the dots” between Charlottesville’s black history and the issues the city faces today. 
Photo: Eze Amos Charlene Green, a multicultural educator who directed the city’s first Dialogue on Race, says she tries to “connect the dots” between Charlottesville’s black history and the issues the city faces today. Photo: Eze Amos

In 2010, Charlene Green, now head of Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights, was directing the city’s first Dialogue on Race, an initiative to engage residents in an ongoing discussion of race, racism, and diversity.

“As I was having discussions with people around the community on these issues, I began to wonder: ‘Who knows all this stuff?’” Green recalls. “Not just school desegregation and the Martin Luther King era, but the anecdotes—the individuals’ stories.”

In response, Green created a PowerPoint on Charlottesville’s African American history, which she currently presents about twice a month (she even has a bus tour version). It highlights people like John West, who was born a slave but became a successful real estate entrepreneur and one of the city’s “first 400,” as the wealthiest African Americans in town were known in the late 19th century. And it adds context to stories that are only half-known.

For instance, “A lot of folks don’t know what all was involved in destroying Vinegar Hill,” she says, referring to the African American neighborhood that was infamously razed in the 1960s. “Like the fact that the Voting Rights Act wasn’t in place when the referendum occurred to keep Vinegar Hill or have the city take it.” Many residents couldn’t vote on the fate of their neighborhood because of a poll tax.

Talking about the city’s African American past, Green says, “got me into talking about history as a part of race and ethnicity.” Why did events that African Americans remembered very well disappear from the city’s narrative? How are the racist attitudes and laws of 100 years ago still affecting residents today?

“When I tell the story of Charlottesville’s history, I try to connect those dots,” she says. “You may think that what happened only affects someone else, but it affects you. If you don’t understand that, you don’t learn the lesson.”

The white supremacist rallies of 2017 cast a sudden and glaring spotlight on Charlottesville’s troubled racial history. From the national media perspective, #Charlottesville was a statue debate and one horrific weekend. But these events were part of a much larger story. Beginning well before the Lee statue became a lightning rod for controversy, a wide range of people have been working to recover Charlottesville’s African American history, and to help the city tell the full story of its past.

In this 19th-century engraving, an enslaved woman holds the child of a white professor on one of UVA’s pavilion balconies. Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Honoring African American culture

The hub of efforts to support and celebrate Charlottesville’s black history is the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The school itself was built in 1926, as the first high school for African American students in Jim Crow-era Charlottesville. (Before that, the only school black students were allowed to attend ended at eighth grade. Families who wanted their children to earn a high school diploma had to send them away from home, at their own expense.) The building’s 2006 listing on the National Register of Historic Places helped spur the city to redevelop it as a community center, anchored by Carver Recreation Center and the African American Heritage Center. The building reopened as the Jefferson School City Center in 2013.

During the Heritage Center’s development, says Executive Director Andrea Douglas, market research showed Charlottesville’s white population was satisfied with the city’s cultural offerings—but the black population wasn’t. African Americans were willing to travel as far as North Carolina to see their experience reflected on stage or in visual arts. That insight helped shape the center’s mission as both a cultural institution and community rallying place.

The center’s programming focuses on black history and culture from 1965 on. It holds four annual events; Douglas calls them “touchstones for the black community”—Juneteenth (which commemorates the end of slavery), Kwanzaa, Veteran’s Day, and the Greens Cook-off—as well as exhibitions and live performances. And it also houses a local history center that includes access to more than 60 oral histories from students who attended the Jefferson School.

The Heritage Center acts as convener and leader for initiatives ranging from last year’s pilgrimage to include Charlottesville lynching victim John Henry James in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to helping revive the historically black Charlottesville Players Guild and stage all the plays of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson.

“Our mission says we celebrate the cultural history of African Americans, and that’s not just for black people,” says Douglas.

“There’s a broad range of social and cultural disparity here, and a lot of history that people who live here or come here don’t see,” she adds. The Center’s ongoing programs are a significant step toward filling that void.

What story do we tell?

One of the biggest ways the city tells the story of its history is through its public memorials and monuments. For decades, these were defined by the now-infamous Confederate statues along Market Street, as well as the statues of white explorers Lewis and Clark and George Rodgers Clark, all of which (except for the Johnny Reb statue outside the courthouse) were commissioned by Paul Goodloe McIntire.

But in recent years, new ideas about who we should memorialize have emerged.

After the initial calls to consider moving the city’s Confederate statues, City Council formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces to address the issue. In its December 2016 report, the commission recommended either “transforming” the Lee and Jackson statues by providing new context, or relocating them to McIntire Park. (City Council voted 3-2 to move the Lee statue, and was promptly sued.) But the report also called for city support to preserve and interpret African American historical sites.

The recommendations included creating a more appropriate and visible marker for the former slave auction block in Court Square, as well as a memorial at or near the site. It asked the city to support the rehabilitation and preservation of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, established in 1873 and the resting place of some of the most prominent members of Charlottesville’s African American community. And it recommended that council provide funds to complete the proposed Vinegar Hill Park, a commemorative area in the walkway between the Omni hotel and the ice rink at the west end of the Downtown Mall, next to the site of the original neighborhood.

By early 2017, the city’s Historic Resources Committee had finalized plans to revise all the markers in Court Square. But after the rallies that summer, according to Jeff Werner, the city’s historic preservation and design planner, the committee decided to revisit the plan, and it’s still under discussion. Vinegar Hill Park is also stalled while the ice rink is being converted into Jaffray Woodriff’s Center of Developing Entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the Jefferson School is leading an effort to erect a monument to Vinegar Hill on its grounds, with a statue by noted black sculptor Melvin Edwards. The city contributed money to the design phase, but the project is waiting on more private investment. 

Despite these delays, the city’s second Dialogue on Race, held in fall 2017, revealed a renewed sense of urgency. “The concerns from the first Dialogue process had been education, employment, social needs,” Green recalls. “This time, the number one action item was for the city to support the telling of all its history.”

Anne Evans, coordinator of world studies for Charlottesville City Schools, says the state’s revision of its social studies standards offered educators an opportunity to include more perspectives on local history. Photo: Eze Amos

Educating the next generation

Schools teach the “official” version of history, and in Virginia, as in most of the South, that version was one that embraced the Lost Cause myth, which presented the Civil War as a battle over states’ rights rather than slavery, and glorified Confederate war heroes while minimizing the contributions of African Americans, Native Americans, and women.

That narrative began to change in the 1990s, when Virginia implemented statewide Standards of Learning (SOLs). In the most recent review of social studies SOLs, in 2015, state educators made a conscious effort to expand the curriculum’s Eurocentric focus to include other groups’ histories, says Anne Evans, coordinator of world studies for Charlottesville City Schools. As a veteran classroom teacher used to incorporating local history, Evans says she saw this as “an opportunity to change our local curriculum.”

Evans convened a group of her colleagues to restructure the curriculum, starting in kindergarten, to include a broader range of perspectives. The group pulled in expertise from throughout the community, including  UVA, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and local historical sites.

“Our students’ parents who grew up in the city and county schools had a very different curriculum,” she says. Now, not only have state textbooks become more inclusive, but teachers can use the textbooks as just one of many resources. Evans’ group is creating a collection of digital resources—oral histories, photos, maps, and original documents like letters and newspaper stories—that teachers can use to tell a fuller story.

They’ve also helped facilitate community connections. That includes bringing in “witnesses to history” like Charles Alexander, one of the Charlottesville 12 who integrated the city’s schools almost 50 years ago. He speaks with students about the experience of being one of the first black children in all-white Venable Elementary school.

In December, CCS partnered with the Jefferson School for a program with Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, a bestselling YA novel about a black girl from a poor family who attends a wealthy, mostly white prep school. “We’re pulling these strands through in other areas, from English classes to the libraries’ speakers’ program,” says Evans.

CCS is also one of six school systems statewide involved in Changing the Narrative, a Virginia Humanities initiative funded by a Kellogg Foundation grant. This two-year effort tackles racism from a range of angles, from bringing resources that explore black history and culture into schoolrooms to encouraging young people of color to explore and highlight their heritage. It also taps Virginia Humanities’ digital resources (like its history podcasts “Backstory” and “With Good Reason,” and web-based Encyclopedia Virginia) to enable students to research events and sites around the state and produce their own history stories.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers broke ground in December, helped in part by $2.5 million in matching funds from UVA. Rendering: Howeler + Yoon Architecture

The world of the university

UVA has been a huge part of Charlottesville’s identity since the school’s founding in 1819. So what has the University been doing to acknowledge its own history?

In 2007, taking a lead from the Virginia General Assembly’s resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery, UVA adopted its own resolution and installed its version of a slavery memorial—a floor marker in the Rotunda’s underground passage honoring the workers who “realized Thomas Jefferson’s design.” UVA students, faculty, alumni, and staff made it clear that the plaque was inadequate at best, and in 2010 a student-led group began lobbying for a real memorial. Soon, other student groups were creating a brochure and campus map about slave history, conducting black history campus tours, and recovering an African American burial site on campus.

The groundswell of activity —student projects, the UVA IDEA Fund (an alumni group supporting diversity and inclusion), and the University and Community Action for Racial Equality—led to the 2013 formation of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University. The Commission was co-chaired by Dr. Marcus L. Martin, University vice president and head of the Office of Diversity and Equity, and Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and professor of history. Martin describes the commission’s work as restorative justice. “We have to tell the full story of the past, so we can move ahead and become more inclusive,” he says.

The commission released its final recommendations in July 2018; in the meantime, however, the push for UVA to reckon with its past has accelerated. Von Daacke says the Slavery and its Legacies course he co-teaches is full every semester. The Cornerstone Summer Institute, launched in 2016, enables students interested in history, archeology, and community engagement to examine UVA’s past and the modern legacies of slavery. And the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers broke ground in December, helped in part by $2.5 million in matching funds from UVA.

Last spring, the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation was formed to examine UVA’s role during racial segregation in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s headed by von Daacke and the Heritage Center’s Douglas, and some wonder if dealing with Jim Crow, white supremacy, and segregation’s legacy will be harder than looking at slavery. “What we know about healing is that we have to acknowledge and atone…to achieve repair,” says von Daacke. “We’ve examined our past; what comes after that is the hard part.”

UVA associate professor Jalane Schmidt, who leads walking tours of downtown monuments, sees her public history work as “amplifying the footnotes”—sharing stories that the majority white city narrative has left out. Photo: Eze Amos

So where are we?

In these ongoing efforts, some concerns came up repeatedly: How do we make sure all this history stays visible and accessible to the entire community? How do we make sure this history is not just acknowledged, but incorporated into a new narrative?  And how do we as a community face and work through the legacy of years of deliberate forgetting?

Jalane Schmidt, an activist and UVA professor of religious studies, sees her avocation as a public historian to be “amplifying the footnotes”—the people and incidents the majority white city narrative has omitted. One way she does that is through the downtown walking tours she began conducting last year, often co-led with Douglas, which give context to the Confederate monuments in the Court Square area. She points out, for instance, that the Jackson statue was erected in the same year the local KKK was founded, on the site of a largely black neighborhood that was demolished to make way for the statue and a whites-only park.

Schmidt has also called attention to inaccuracies in the way the city presents its Civil War history. On March 3, 1865, Union soldiers “occupied” Charlottesville in the final weeks of the Civil War in Virginia. But at that time, the majority (52 percent) of the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County were African Americans, almost all of them enslaved. To the majority, then, the Union troops weren’t invaders riding roughshod over the Lost Cause—they were allies bringing freedom and self-determination.

Schmidt says, “People say history is written by the winner, but in this case it wasn’t: The only monument [to this liberation] is the little plaque downtown.” She and other activists wore 52 Percent T-shirts to the Blue Ribbon Commission meetings, to force that historical fact into the deliberations about who and what the city should memorialize. As a result, the Commission recommended that City Council begin marking Liberation and Freedom Day on March 3, citing the persuasive case made by Schmidt and historical researcher and Commission member Jane Smith (who was instrumental in finding the likely site of John Henry James’ 1898 lynching). The city’s first Liberation Day event was held in 2017 at the UVA Chapel—on the site where Union soldiers first met with city leaders 152 years earlier.

Schmidt and others involved in recovering these stories agreed that the 2017 summer of hate has sparked greater interest in Charlottesville’s African American history, more discussion, and more community self-examination. She says the commemoration held at James’ lynching site, and the subsequent pilgrimage to Montgomery, drew more people than could be accommodated. Attendance on her black history walking tours is rising steadily—68 people participated in the last one. Discrimination-related issues like zoning, affordable housing, policing tactics, and incarceration are more visible.

And more organizations want to be part of the city’s third celebration of Liberation and Freedom Day. This year’s events will roll out over three days, which is how long the Union troops were actually here. Participants have expanded from City Council, the Heritage Center, and UVA’s Office of Diversity and Equity to include Virginia Humanities, Monticello, Charlottesville City Schools, and the Jefferson Theater.

Schmidt (and others) hope this momentum will continue, and will mean support not only for uncovering the past, but also for facing its legacy. As Charlene Green says: “Making invisible history visible is just a start. If there is sincerity about creating an equitable society, our policies and the way we do business has to change—or we’re just putting lipstick on a pig.”

Charlene Green, a multicultural educator who directed the city’s first Dialogue on Race, says she tries to “connect the dots” between Charlottesville’s black history and the issues the city faces today.

 

Recovering black history 

Efforts to uncover and promote our African American history have picked up steam in recent years. Here are some of the steps the city, schools, and university have taken since 2007.

2007

  • Virginia General Assembly passes a resolution expressing regret for slavery.
  • UVA passes a similar resolution.
  • Montpelier’s descendants community challenges the site to recover and interpret the Madisons’ South Yard slave quarters.

2009

  • City launches first Dialogue on Race.

2010

  • UVA students begin effort to fund and build a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers
    on Grounds.

2012

  • At a Virginia Festival of the Book event, Councilor Kristin Szakos raises the question of whether the city’s Confederate monuments should be removed, causing an uproar.
  • First Dialogue on Race releases report.

2013

  • Jefferson School City Center opens.
  • UVA launches President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

2016

  • CCS rolls out revised K-3 social studies curriculum.
  • Press conference calling for removal of statues.
  • City convenes Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, which releases its report in December asking City Council to either recontextualize or relocate the Lee and Jackson statues.
  • Highland begins formation of a Monroe slave descendant community.

2017

  • City Council votes to relocate Lee statue and redesign Lee and Jackson parks.
  • City’s Historic Resources Committee drafts plan to revise signage in Court Square.
    • White supremacists (led by UVA alum Richard Spencer) hold torch-lit rally at Lee Park.
  • Montpelier opens “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit on slavery.
  • City Council renames Lee and Jackson Parks.
  • UVA Board of Visitors approves Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.
    • KKK holds rally in then-Jackson Park.
    • White supremacists march through UVA and hold Unite the Right rally.
  • City holds second Dialogue on Race and releases report.

2018

  • CCS unveils new Virginia Studies curriculum.
  • UVA forms President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation.
  • Monticello opens exhibit on Sally Hemings.
  • UVA Commission on Slavery releases final report.
  • UVA breaks ground on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.