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Raised/Razed: A Documentary Film on Vinegar Hill

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by Naila A. Smith, PhD

“Raised/Razed” is an hour-long documentary film produced by the VPM Media Corporation and written and directed by Lorenzo Dickerson and Jordy Yager–natives of Charlottesville, Virginia. Made over the course of the pandemic and first released on April 30, 2022, the film tells the story of two Black neighborhoods, Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville and Hayti in Durham, North Carolina, where homes, businesses, and public institutions were intentionally demolished (i.e., razed) in the 1960s as part of the Urban Renewal program.

Urban Renewal was a federal program from 1949 to 1974 that seized and destroyed private and public properties in over 600 municipalities, across the U.S., such as Atlanta, Georgia, Chicago, Illinois, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to make way for modernization to spur economic progress. The film highlights the disproportionate effects of Urban Renewal on the African American community: despite being only 10% of the U.S. population at the time, over 50% of the people affected by the program were African American. 

a man sits at a desk with documents

Fillmaker Jordy Yager scans historical documents at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Photo Credit: Jordy Yager

Though much of the documentary focuses on Vinegar Hill, Dickerson and Yager included Hayti to highlight that Urban Renewal impacted both large and small African American communities. 

The first half of the film focuses on daily life in Vinegar Hill before it was razed in 1964. Dickerson, who grew up hearing stories of Vinegar Hill, noted how these childhood stories of a vibrant community were erased by narratives of Vinegar Hill that focused only on its destruction. 

Through contemporary and oral history interviews, historical records, geographical maps, and photographs, the film paints a vivid picture of the Vinegar Hill community as a hub of Black social, economic, and cultural life in its heyday. For about 100 years, over 500 of its residents gave birth, raised children, lived, died, and left legacies there. Captured in the first half of its name, Raised, the documentary film deeply underscores the neighborhood’s humanity and rich cultural legacy, and takes its time to tell these stories. 

Notably, there were interviews with the mother and daughter duo, Verlease Bell and Deborah Bell Burks, who ran Quality Retail Store, marked by a large RC Cola signage, where children often lingered after school to get candy. There was also the local hall where adults congregated to play pool and drink. Also featured was the Jefferson School, the first school for free African American children. 

Vinegar Hill resident Kathy Johnson Harris stands in front of the Jefferson School, which she attended as a student. Photo Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson and Jordy Yager

The film transports viewers to key spaces in Vinegar Hill by seamlessly transitioning from historical maps and photos of Vinegar Hill to contemporary images by fading one image to the next. Two transitions are particularly striking. First, there is a superimposition of the building where Mr. Inge’s grocery store used to be, the building today looks largely unchanged from the outside. Second, there is a superimposition of the University of Virginia Hospital on top of an old map of the Vinegar Hill boundaries. Tthe image fits like a perfect puzzle piece. These moments in the film underscore the reality that Vinegar Hill’s past is more recent than it may seem. 

The second half of the film, Razed, focuses on the movement to tear down Vinegar Hill. Through a flurry of footage of newspaper clippings, photographs, and audio recordings, Dickerson and Yager lead the audience through a tense, high stakes retelling of the political movement by white politicians and residents of Charlottesville to destroy the historically Black community. We learn about smear campaigns labeling Vinegar Hill as a slum and how voting laws restricted Black Vinegar Hill residents’ ability to save their neighborhood. 

Also highlighted are the multiple historical movements occurring during this time. Critically, the film notes the rise of the Charlottesville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the ongoing Civil Rights movement, and school desegregation. These movements provide important context for establishing the heated historical contentions surrounding the area and its future. This context is exemplified by the inserted James Baldwin interview clip in which he critiques Urban Renewal as “Negro removal.” Collectively, this sequence explicitly names Urban Renewal as yet another racist policy to oppress Black people in the United States. 

Compelling documentation of the social, cultural, and economic loss of the destruction of Vinegar Hill brings the film to its final conclusion. Images of property valuations and incisive commentary by Dr. Andrea Douglas, Executive Director for The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, outlined the tremendous economic loss caused by the leveling of Vinegar Hill: many businesses shut down permanently, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in current and future earnings. Further, Black-owned homes destroyed were never used to build equity, send a child to college, or passed down to the next generation. 

Despite an official apology by the city of Charlottesville, according to Dickerson and Yager, the general consensus by everyone interviewed was that the razing of Vinegar Hill was an injustice that remains in need of repair. The film closes by hinting at recent movements and efforts to redress these wrongs such as the return of Bruce’s Beach, a thriving Black-owned resort in Southern California for Black families, to its rightful owners, and Yvonne Garrett Patterson of Hayti in Durham, NC plan to introduce a reparations bill. 

No firm conclusions about the road to reparations are drawn by the end of the film, but it makes one thing clear: Vinegar Hill’s former residents and their descendants are alive in Charlottesville today and deserve to have their humanity seen, heard, and valued.

 

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