Pulling up to Charlottesville, Va., I expect to be heading into a frenzied chaos of protestors and Klan ralliers. Instead, I am pleasantly surprised with a welcome sign coupled with a giant metal daffodil sculpture, painted to match the flower in nature. The quaint town of a population just over 46,000, 19 percent of which is Black, is striking, with a charming Southern aesthetic many only see in movies. As my road trip partner navigates and I drive us to the historic Downtown Charlottesville, where national attention focused after protests exploded out of control, a bus passes and says something about Charlottesville and displays a diverse group of faces. My initial thought is, “Interesting.”
We park and head to the central outdoor mall. In comparison to Manhattan, the mall is approximately three city blocks of shops, restaurants, a yoga studio and theaters. The buildings look preserved, or at least rebuilt to reflect the 18th century, an era when slave labor dominated America’s economy.
Our goal in visiting Charlottesville is to talk to residents. While we survey the space, we happen upon the memorial dedicated to Heather Heyer, the white woman from Charlottesville who was killed during the initial series of protests and rallies that sparked national attention. On this side street, between a yoga studio and a jewelry shop, are flowers and chalked notes that read “Love Not Hate” and “Love Trumps Hate,” along with other messages of peace, love and unity.
While we explore this area, white people are sauntering in the memorial space, reading messages and taking photos. At some point, my road trip partner, Jacquelynn Suzette, who is a social science researcher, mentions to me that none of the other people in the space will make eye contact with her when she attempts to connect with them. Jacquelynn is Afro-Latina.
We both discuss what “Love Not Hate” actually means in this space, in Charlottesville.
We move on from the memorial and continue surveying the mall area. We happen upon a group of white men staring at a building that could have been a bank in the recent past. They’re holding rolls of schematics and dressed similarly in polo shirts and khakis and shorts. They look like contractors.
Jacquelynn asks the group what they’re getting ready to do (with the building). One of the men responds with, “We’re getting ready to rally.” He and a few others in the group laugh haughtily before composing himself to explain that they’re building a restaurant.
Jacquelynn and I both smile uncomfortably and walk away.
We come upon two Black men, dressed similarly wearing blue jeans and green T-shirts with the same colorful logo above the left breast. They’re on a work break. We introduce ourselves and begin a conversation about the recent activities and tragedies. Throughout the course of the conversation, both men, Anthony (from Charlottesville) and Gerald (from Philadelphia) second each other’s sentiments about the town, saying the recent protests and rallies are a product of white people’s discontent as local Black leaders are disrupting the power imbalance.
Wes Bellamy, a 30-year-old Black man, was elected to the city council in 2016 and now serves as the vice mayor. During his term, according to both Anthony and Gerald, Bellamy is promoting diversity and economic justice for everyone.
Now that there is some glimmer of hope for the disenfranchised people in the community, and now that Black leaders are speaking out against injustices in a strategic way, Anthony explains, he believes the white people in the community are experiencing a crisis.
“Any time Black people stand up for themselves in the South, that’s when the snake peeks his head up,” Anthony says. “From what I’ve seen, people have been scared. All these years [people] have been running. Me, I won’t run anymore.”
Charlottesville’s most modern and beautiful neighborhoods and homes belong to white people and newcomers, Gerald explains. The new houses around the downtown area, the nice ones, once belonged to lower-income locals and Black folk. But like many places around the country during the past five years, Charlottesville has experienced gentrification on some level.
He says new, low-income homes are being built in a place locally called Hogwaller, a part of town in the neighborhood of Belmont, the outskirts of Charlottesville. It’s a place where livestock are raised and a pungent odor of animal waste permeates throughout the area. In the past, Charlottesville residents of all economic backgrounds wanted nothing to do with Hogwaller.
In our conversation, Gerald challenges the intentions of local developers and influential residents.
“They think they’re doing us a favor,” Gerald says. “By me being an outsider, I see this stuff. But [locals] are happy to get any place. If you go around this area and look at the houses, the nice and new ones, other people live there, and it’s other people’s property. They bought us out, renovated and sold the houses for over $300,000, knowing we can’t afford that.”
The median household income for Charlottesville residents is under $50,000.
We spoke to a few other people, including three white women, one of whom wanted to remain anonymous. For the sake of the story, I’ll call her Jane.
Although Jane wasn’t raised in Charlottesville, she spent a lot of her life near the town working and going to school. As a white woman, she acknowledges that she and other white people in this town enjoy privileges others can’t. She also says Charlottesville is a place where there are a lot of powerful white people with money.
“This is why they came,” Jane says in reference to the Ku Klux Klan presence. She says the debate about whether or not to take down the Robert E. Lee statue started a long time ago and has been happening in court for some time before the rest of the country learned about the issue.
Julia, a waitress at The Nook Restaurant, born and raised in Charlottesville, speaks about the historical racial tension that persists in her city. But she and other younger residents believe hatred will not prevail.
“Yes, there is a sense of race problems,” she says. “But it never got taken to the extreme until the white nationalists came. Their extreme thoughts provoked everyone else’s extreme thoughts. There are people who were on the borderline, and the KKK just pushed them to one side.”
Essentially, Charlottesville residents have had a lasting understanding to keep to themselves. Some rebellious youngsters might have integrated on a graduated level, but the more traditional folk kept the lines clear. Many white people have held on to their segregated thinking, but had not considered themselves racist or against progress, perhaps. Julie says because the vice mayor’s work focuses on diversity and unification, her quiet, generally peaceful town has erupted into a race war zone.
Ending the visit, I want to talk to a group of older white men, congregating in a sitting area of a restaurant. Jacquelynn manages to get a quick acknowledgement while passing. I try to make eye contact with any of them, but fail. I speak to people around them in an attempt to capture someone in the group’s attention. That doesn’t work. Finally, I sit nearby and ask the group about getting a waiter. None of them say a word or even look my way. After a pregnant pause, a white man across the other side of the sitting area yells to me how to go about ordering. I never interview those men, but Charlottesville’s turmoil becomes overtly apparent in that moment. I, a Black woman, and those Black men we interviewed, and the Black people who reside in that town are meant to remain on the outskirts. Black people are not meant to penetrate a system designed to uphold the interests of the powerful, of the influential and of the wealthy. Black people are to fall into place.
Charlottesville is a quietly influential city in the grand scheme of America. Three of the country’s presidents come from this town or were closely associated with the former landowner. Charlottesville, in fact, is formerly an expansive plantation that was owned by Nicholas Meriwether II. He acquired the land in the 1700s and built his farm where Black bodies were property.
This little piece of historical information further validates the uphill battle Bellamy and Anthony and Gerald, and even those white women, have to fight to overthrow oppression in Charlottesville. Charlottesville, in turn, is America in microcosm.