Considering History: Charlottesville and the Destructive Effects of White Supremacy

On the two-year anniversary of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, Ben Railton discusses the hidden histories of both enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville’s African-American Vinegar Hill neighborhood.

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

This week, just before the two-year anniversary of the August 2017 white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, my sons and I will once again drive down for our annual pilgrimage to my hometown. Last August, I used the dual occasions of that anniversary and that trip to write about Charlottesville’s largely hidden histories of Confederate memory and segregation, and how much the 2017 rally echoed those white supremacist legacies. Those lessons are more vital than ever in the summer of 2019.

Yet there are other hidden historical legacies in Charlottesville as well. One of the most pernicious is the longstanding erasure of African-American lives and communities, identities and histories, from both the city’s collective memories and its unfolding story. That erasure comprises one of white supremacy’s most deep and destructive effects, and is painfully relevant today.

One of those long-erased communities were the enslaved African Americans who built and sustained the University of Virginia. Rented enslaved laborers formed a core community during the university’s 1817-1825 construction, with the university paying more than $1,000 in hiring fees (more than $21,000 in contemporary value) to slave owners at the 1820-1821 height of activity. The 800,000-900,000 bricks used to construct the Rotunda, the university’s most famous structure, were manufactured by a group of 15 slaves in 1825. Once the university opened in 1825, enslaved men and women worked in numerous roles to keep it running, with an average of more than 100 enslaved laborers performing housekeeping, culinary, and personal service duties (such as blacking students’ shoes) throughout the pre-Civil War decades.

Image of the University of Virginia Rotunda
The University of Virginia rotunda (Wikimedia Commons)

These enslaved men and women were also the frequent target of abuse and violence from the university’s elite male students. In November 1837, a group of drunken students beat the university bell-ringer, Lewis Commodore; just a few months later, in February 1838, two students savagely beat Fielding, a slave owned by mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle, and the professor had to intervene “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered.” In April 1850, three students abducted and raped a 17-year-old enslaved girl from Charlottesville; six years later, in 1856, student Noble Noland beat a 10- or 11-year-old enslaved girl unconscious because, he told the Faculty Committee, she had been “insolent to him” and such a beating was “not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons.” Noland, like many of these attackers, went unpunished.

For nearly two centuries, neither the University of Virginia nor the city of Charlottesville acknowledged this history of slavery and racism in any consistent public fashion. Much as Thomas Jefferson’s individual status as a slave owner was largely elided, (enslaved African Americans were frequently referred to as “servants” on tours of Monticello until the early 21st century), so too did narratives of Jefferson’s “academical village” highlight the space’s ideals and minimize (at best) the historical oppression on which it was literally built. Efforts are finally underway to redress those absences, including both the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and a memorial to a cemetery for enslaved laborers. That cemetery had gone unmarked for more than 150 years, a telling reminder of both how fully this community had been buried and how much work remains to be done.

An artist's conception of a planned memorial for enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia, showing students viewing the memorial and studying on benches near it.
An artist’s rendering of the planned memorial to enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia (Image courtesy Höweler + Yoon Architecture)

The destruction and burial of African American communities in Charlottesville continued long after the abolition of slavery, and indeed well into the 20th century. Over the course of the century’s early decades, the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, located between the city’s downtown shopping district and the university grounds, became one of Charlottesville’s most prominent African-American communities, featuring 140 homes, 30 black-owned businesses (everything from a jazz club to a fish market), and a church. As with so many African-American neighborhoods throughout the Jim Crow South (and an increasingly segregated nation), Vinegar Hill came to embody both the civic spaces into which African-American communities were forced and the resilience, solidarity, and power with which those communities responded.

Through a series of 1950s and 1960s efforts, however, Charlottesville demolished that neighborhood in the name of “urban renewal.” In January 1954 the City Council adopted a resolution critiquing the city’s large number of “unsanitary and unsafe inhabited dwelling accommodations”; after a very narrowly decided referendum vote, in June of that year the city established a Housing Authority to address this perceived problem. Over the next few years, that agency focused its attention on plans for “redeveloping” the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, which, as one supportive newspaper editorial put it, “is related closely with the rest of the downtown Charlottesville area which seriously needs room for expansion.” Expansion, redevelopment, renewal — these were all euphemisms for the unnecessary, overtly white supremacist displacement of a thriving African-American neighborhood.

Zion Union Baptist Church, before it was destroyed with the rest of Vinegar Hill (Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.)

In 1960, the Housing Authority proposed a referendum in support of “redeveloping” Vinegar Hill. Most of the city’s African-American residents could not vote in that referendum, thanks to a longstanding, racist poll tax. On June 14, 1960, the referendum narrowly passed, and by 1964 a plan was in place to bulldoze the entire neighborhood. Despite sustained opposition from African-American residents and their allies, in 1965 the neighborhood was razed, and most of its residents displaced to the city’s newly constructed Westhaven public housing project. Federal law required that the city provide such housing for residents it was displacing, although of course a unit in a project is no equivalent to a single-family home. Moreover, Westhaven was apparently as shoddily constructed as many of the era’s public housing projects, and by the 1980s many of its buildings were deteriorating.

Physician Mindy Thompson Fullilove has coined the term “root shock” to describe “the consequences of African American dispossession.” That shock, like the dispossession and destruction that cause it, is a purposeful and indeed central goal of white supremacy: to not only uproot American communities of color, but to make it impossible for those communities to endure as part of the civic life of cities and of the United States. Erased from both the landscape and memory, absent from both narratives of the past and visions of shared futures, these communities would too often, as Fullilove traces, experience “a profound shift in [their] political and social engagement” with both their local worlds and the nation.

That’s the crucial, tragic irony of white supremacist, exclusionary visions of America — in service of a mythic definition of a homogenous nation that never was, they seek to destroy the thriving, inclusive communities that truly define our shared identity. As I argue throughout my new book, We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American, countering those exclusions requires acknowledging the communities and histories that exemplify an inclusive America. On the two-year anniversary of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, remembering both enslaved laborers and the Vinegar Hill neighborhood would be a fitting response indeed.

Featured image: White supremecists clash with police in Charlottesville, VA, on August 17, 1917 (Evan Nesterak, Wikimedia Commons)

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