Activism and action Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Chapter of the NAACP has been a mentor to Wes Bellamy since his arrival, but they don’t see eye to eye on the role black community leaders should play. Turner believes young people are too quick to leave behind injustices in Charlottesville’s history, particularly local resistance to ending segregation, and spoke of his hope that young African-American people would continue to work on every problem and “never leave the room, stay in the room and have a conversation, especially on the issue of race.” Turner spoke about what he hoped to see from the next generation.
“A lot has to do with the people who make decisions. It takes students who will make pressure, not violence, but sustained pressure. Free stuff and networking meetings are not enough. They have to be bold, committed, and willing not to be popular all the time,” he said. “Charlottesville wants tranquility, not interruption. They don’t want actively involved African-Americans… not to get involved in issues like racial profiling, voter suppression, and mass incarceration. Why don’t [young people] want to? Fear. Complacency.”
Andrea Copeland, who is between Turner and Bellamy in age, is also keenly aware of how the history of the black community in Charlottesville shapes its identity. “We always talk about moving forward. People say, ‘Get over it,’ but one or two generations removed, it’s still fresh for them,” she said. “It’s part of who they are and it’s taken a toll on them.” While Turner offered a critique of YBPN, he is pleased by its existence. “I wish I could have been involved in something like it,” he said. Bellamy and Turner have hashed out their philosophical differences many times, and Bellamy sees the tension between them as a positive part of their relationship. “I’ve been under his tutelage, but I’m branching out on my own,” he said. “I want to use what he showed me. He has his idea of how to address issues in the African-American community, but we have different philosophies. There’s more than one way to achieve our goals.”
There is little doubt that Bellamy sees the organization as part of an effort to build a political power base. Whatever the reason why the black community split its vote between Melvin Grady and Wes Bellamy for the City Council seat last year, Bellamy has taken away a lesson from the race. “Together everyone achieves more. The only way we’re going to move forward is by working together, not splitting votes, not saying I’m going to do it my way, like a cowboy, but working for the greater good,” Bellamy said.
Dr. Alvin Edwards, pastor at Mt. Zion African Baptist Church, which was founded in 1867 as the city’s first black-led church, is originally from Joliet, Illinois, but came to Virginia for Divinity School at Virginia Union before obtaining his Ph.D. in education from George Mason University. A leader of his congregation since 1981, he has been another mentor to Bellamy. He understands why people have accused him of moving too fast, of wanting too much as a transplant from Atlanta, but he also understands the power of youth engagement. “I believe Wes is a capable, caring, and a compassionate young man,” Edwards said. “He’s interested in giving young people a hand up. I don’t know how much longer a person needs to wait. We’re all in the process of becoming. You grow by learning. It is human. He wants to impact the lives of students and young adults. I expect him to make mistakes, and profit from them.”
On the creation of YBPN, he offered encouragement and a warning. “It’s an excellent response to the fact that nobody is doing anything in the community,” he said. “I think it’s a good beginning… I believe, if you don’t know what the past mistakes were you’re doomed to repeat them. They help to give you a shoulder to stand on, but you have to be creative too, to address the current trends and cultural challenges of today.” It would be hard to accuse Bellamy of shying away from feedback. When I asked him what he sought from his mentors and what they were telling him, he turned thoughtful. “I ask them for knowledge about how we bring our people together and their advice is usually on point,” he said. “Anybody can tell you how to do it that has never done it. The people who have actually tried it; they are the ones I want to hear from. That wisdom is priceless, and they’re normally receptive.”
Although YBPN’s mission may seem like a departure from the organizations like the NAACP that have led the struggle for equality, there is overlap. Bellamy is organizing a rally to shed light on the social issues that led to the shooting death of Jordan Davis, the unarmed Florida youth who was shot by a white gun owner on the way home from a movie theater. The Black Youth Matter rally is on Friday, February 28 at 7 pm at the Freedom of Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall. But unity, not protest, is the first order of business when Bellamy speaks. At a First Friday meeting of YBPN at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, he echoed a message he shares at many of his public speaking engagements. “If there’s someone in the crowd that you don’t know, you can’t leave without meeting them. You have to introduce yourself,” he said. “The way we have power is by showing unity. Our staying power depends on our ability to mobilize and move as one.”
And while his methods may be focused on getting ahead and engaging out of town talent with the local community, there are parts of his identity that reach back to the early days of the struggle for black equality. Every day he recites a quote from the Black Muslim leader Elijah Mohammad: “No true leader burdens his followers with a greater load than they can carry. No true leader sets too fast a pace for his followers to keep up.” He prefers grassroots action to promises and policies. “If I said that I am going to do something, I’m going to go all out to see that it’s done,” he said. “People are more willing to follow you, if when you say you’re gonna do something, you actually do it.” That is what YBPN is about for people like Pierceson Harris, who is young, ambitious, and looking for work. “YBPN is geared towards everyone,” he said. “Anyone can get ahead, regardless of what school you go to or went to. If you want success, then you need the drive, and this group is all about drive.”
For Bellamy, like his nonprofit HYPE and his City Council candidacy, the young professional network is a part of the larger puzzle piece to move the city’s black community forward, to demand the opportunities that were so long denied by joining disparate groups together for one cause. “It’s about bringing the people together, networking and connecting, getting everybody on the same page, bringing the tools and resources to our people, taking charge of our community,” he said. “We have to show people how to have a strong presence in City Hall, in our schools.”