Written by Katrina Spencer; featured image by Kori Price
When we sit down, it’s at the Shenandoah Joe’s on 10th & Preston, right alongside Washington Park, the area Eddie Harris grew up in, “on the Height.” It’s unseasonably warm outside– over 80 degrees– and we’re only three days into spring. Not all the cherry blossoms have opened up yet. The UVA students are back from break. And the uptick in gun-related deaths in Charlottesville has us all a bit more alert about local activity than perhaps we want to be.
For me, it’s a big moment. I am now the steward of stories of the magazine that Eddie created some 12 years ago, and for four months now, I have tried to do his vision justice with the writers, stories, and themes I recruit. Sometimes I wonder if I veer well off the path. But Eddie assures me that Vinegar Hill Magazine (VHM) is boundless in its aspirations. He is our publisher and my elder, and my position exists because of the seed of an idea he nurtured long before I even knew what Charlottesville was.
He’s wearing black VHM swag and chewing a chocolate chip cookie. I’ve frosted my fro in a goldish pink and, as my generation demands, I’m trying to stay hydrated. We’re different and the same. He’s a Southerner who knew segregated schools in the 1960s and whose life introduced him to street hustles and hard knocks early on. I’m a transplant from California whose classmates’ last names from elementary through grad school, 1990- 2016, ranged from Ávila to Bekmezian to Chun to Go to Oni and to Surendranath, to name a small, but diverse subset. My first real job? Librarian. It don’t get no mo’ strait-laced than that.
But there’s at least two things we clearly have in common: we’re proud to be Black and are invested in the restoration of our people’s dignity. So we find ways to compile our goals, negotiate our strategies, and find common ground. We both want to support narratives that inspire discovery, possibility, and truth.
At my prompting, Eddie begins to tell me his story– one of a close and intimate community that offered supportive guidance and a strong sense of identity. Within it, he was loved by his biological and chosen families. Though he lost his father early on to lung cancer, there were enough parental figures about to make him, the baby of the family, feel whole. While he wasn’t rich in dollars, he was in loving care.
When the Charlottesville schools were desegregated, however, Eddie’s sense of normalcy was destabilized and his identity shaken. This historic event would become a major turning point in his life. Where before the people on his left and on his right all looked like him, once integration efforts came underway, he had to travel a greater distance to school. He and his peers were subjected to abuse, which included verbal harassment by strangers as they plodded their new paths there. And often he was the only Black male in his classes. While his family and loved ones celebrated his intelligence and athletic performance, the new schooling environment seemed to persistently suggest to him that he was less than, inferior in some inexplicable but inherent way, and the cognitive dissonance got to him. He carried this friction within him that resisted resolution and festered into a sense of resentment.
It wasn’t long before his actions and behaviors started to match the low and poor expectations the broader systems of power had of him. The loving community, his all-star baseball team, and even the pro-Black politics of the ‘70s wouldn’t be able to save him from tripping over the proverbial snares in his path. The streets were calling his name, and he answered. Getting caught up on the wrong side of the law, Eddie would be incarcerated, staring down a potential sentencing of 30 long years. “But God…won’t He do it?”
Divine intervention kept Eddie’s time behind bars relatively low– about a tenth of what was expected. Rehabilitative programs like the Locust Therapeutic Community and work release gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that there was nothing mean, hardened, criminal, or irredeemable in him– just a general disorientation and a need to reset his mind. So while he was detoured and delayed, he was able to resume a stable path.
It was at this time that the idea for building a media platform that would honor the Black community began to churn inside him. He noted that stories in the local media were casting his people in a poor light, and it rubbed him all wrong. But moreover, the depiction he saw simply didn’t represent the warmth, care, and bonds he knew. Only a portion of the truth was being told, and that portion wasn’t large enough. And if the phrase “If you want something done right, do it yourself” was a person, its name would be Eddie Harris.
In 2011, Vinegar Hill Magazine (VHM) was born. [Kind of.] It didn’t look like it does now: glossy, full color, 40 pages long, and full of ads promoting local businesses. No. VHM was a humble newsletter before it was a magazine. It was made up of just a few pages. Local contributors wrote in their stories, and Eddie would distribute the publication by hand to anyone who would take it. Grassroots all the way. Since its early beginnings, VHM has covered stories of Black entrepreneurship, local politics, travel, community arts, events, and more, providing evidence that counters the idea that Black people are any less than any other. Eddie, then, is obliterating the same tension that discomfited him as a boy and nurturing his community in doing so.
And since chief operating officer Sarad Davenport signed on to help steer the periodical in 2013, he reports that VHM can boast over 6,000 followers, subscribers and members combined, more than 10 contributing writers, a staff of nine part-time staff and contractors, quarterly print circulation, an open access website, gear you can purchase by clicking “Merch” at vinegarhillmagazine.com, a variety of sponsorships for local events, a partnership with the Charlottesville Inclusive Media Project, and the recent win of the Borealis Philanthropy grant. In other words, it seems to be doing pretty well by most any metric.
Eddie affirms that the magazine is more than a mere publication. Rather, it is representative of a mindset. His desire has always been to create something larger than himself, larger than any one editor, and something that will outlive us all. One thing we agreed on early in our discussion is that the Church and the family aren’t the central and unifying institutions they once were for the Black community. Knowing this, Eddie hopes to see VHM rewrite history, to become a household name, and to be a thread that reunites the local Black community. Another phrase that embodies Eddie’s vision? “The sky is the limit.”
I scratch out copious notes listening to Eddie’s aspirations, alternating between lamenting my failing penmanship and lending him my eye contact, frequently grunting to indicate I hear him. As politely as she can, a barista reminds us all that the coffee shop closed six minutes ago. I gather up my things knowing that not only did I have more questions to ask Eddie and that we were just getting started over an hour into conversation, but also that there are three submitted VHM stories I’m due to edit this week from our writers on a local and historic restaurant, a trip to Europe that reveals its Black diaspora, and media makers like Thomas Jerome “TJ” Sellers. It seems, Eddie, we are on our way to building that much yearned for legacy, and we hope to do you proud.
To become a member of Vinegar Hill Magazine, visit https://www.vinegarhillvintage.com/products/annual-content-membership. Find Vinegar Hill Magazine’s stories at vinegarhillmagazine.com. If you have excellent writing skills and want to write for the publication or seek coverage of a story or event, write firstname.lastname@example.org.