By Samantha Willis
In December 2016, Richmond magazine presented a three-part learning series dubbed The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond (#UnmaskingRVA). It was an opportunity for Richmond to get real with itself and for its citizens to speak honestly about how racism influenced the city’s past and could shape its future. Like Richmond, Charlottesville is a city steeped in history. The ideals of American independence, liberty and freedom cast long shadows here; so too do the realities of American slavery, racism and inequity.
The community of Vinegar Hill, evoked through the name of this publication, shares commonalities with a Richmond community 70 miles East of Charlottesville: Jackson Ward. In late 19th century Richmond, mere miles from the Shockoe Bottom docks that delivered thousands of enslaved Black people into the maw of the second largest slave trading port in America, the community of Jackson Ward was brought to bear by free people of color, and those born into chattel slavery. Less than 50 years removed from the Civil War, Jackson Ward – locals called it Black Wall Street – built itself into a national capital of African-American entrepreneurship, and a hive of economic and cultural significance. As the author Selden Richardson wrote, Jackson Ward was built by Blacks. So, too, was Vinegar Hill.
Like Richmond, Charlottesville has witnessed – and played party to – the demise of a historically-Black, self-contained community. In both locales, the homes of African American families and Black-owned businesses were destroyed by state-sanctioned improvement efforts. In 1950s Richmond, the Commonwealth of Virginia built a highway through Jackson Ward’s heart, after which the disjointed community fell into a slow decline. In the 1960s, Vinegar Hill was razed with the intention of expanding and improving the downtown business district, literally wiping away an entire neighborhood in days. It still remains to be seen all that was lost from the demolition of these communities. What would a thriving, Black-owned Vinegar Hill look like today? How might the lives of people of color be different if it had not been destroyed? How do we stop that from ever happening again?
Because the past is the literal and figurative foundation of the future, we cannot possibly hope to improve ourselves, our communities or our nation without examining it, learning from it. To this end, #UnmaskingCville, a three-part learning series presented by Virginia Humanities June 21-23, was a step toward recognizing the truth of the past, assessing and healing the Charlottesville community in its present state, and building a more equitable society for future generations.
The Unmasking Series is inspired by a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” In 1896 Dunbar wrote,
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes…
Dunbar was a gifted intellectual and writer born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio less than 10 years after the end of the Civil War. A brilliant Black man who came of age as Jim Crow strangled the meager social and economic progress African Americans had made during Reconstruction, there’s little doubt that Dunbar included himself in the collective, mask-wearing “we” he references in his poem. His words acknowledge a depth of feeling, well of emotion and span of thoughts that Black people were forced to conceal during his lifetime. African Americans were fighting systemic, often-violent racism to survive and thrive; they weren’t full citizens, they weren’t permitted to express their true feelings about their plight, and they certainly couldn’t reveal their thoughts about the crushing system of white supremacy that confined their daily reality. Those Blacks who dared to take off their masks, to speak against racism, to fight the system, risked their livelihoods and very lives.
#UnmaskingCville looked deeply into Charlottesville’s past and how much race and racism shaped it. We learned from Niya Bates, historian of African American life and culture at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, that most of the Charlottesville region comprised plantations where enslaved Black people lived and worked for generations. Mayor Nikuyah Walker described the Charlottesville of her youth, and the stunning lack of progress the city has made in advancing its mindset about race and racism since then. Young activist Zyahna Bryant, the teen best known for creating a petition to rename Lee Park, expressed concern about the way area schools educate students about history, race, and racism. After these panelists spoke, the community questioned itself, and examined the role each person plays in confronting and dismantling racism – or perpetuating it. In honest – if difficult – dialogue, citizens reflected on Charlottesville’s housing, economics, politics and policing, and how racism and inequity still contributes to each. Charlottesville’s monuments of Civil War soldiers, and the deadly violence white nationalists brought to the city last year were part of the discussion, but didn’t start or end it. In its totality, #UnmaskingCville centered the perspectives and voices of those who have been historically oppressed, and elevated the views of the next generation of Charlottesville citizens and leaders.
#UnmaskingCville offered an opportunity for the whole community – Black and white, descendants of the enslaved and those who enslaved them – to remove their masks, deal honestly with the past and look with renewed hope toward the future.
To learn more about #UnmaskingCville and to watch a video of the forum referenced above, visit www.virginiahumanities.org/events/unmasking-cville/.
Samantha Willis is a Hanover County, Virginia native, a freelance writer and co-creator of the Unmasking Series. A wife of one husband and mother of two sons, Samantha writes for a variety of regional and national publications including Richmond Magazine, Virginia Living, and Glamour Magazine, with a focus on the arts, culture, and African American life and history. Find her on Twitter (@WordsByWillis) or email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.