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Vinegar Hill Remembered: Eminent Domain,Urban Removal, and The Demolition of a People’s Soul

by William A. James Sr.

When I first arrived in the City of Charlottesville on June 11, 1963, some of the buildings on Vinegar Hill were still standing, though all of them had been abandoned. I wondered what had happened to cause an entire neighborhood to cease to exist. I later discovered that Vinegar Hill was once a twenty-acre tract, that 158 families—140 of them were Black—had called home. Black people were first allowed to own property there even before slavery ended. Eventually thirty businesses were established in the community which were run by Black people in the community. These businesses and residences were bordered by Preston Avenue, going Northwest to Fourth Street, and on around to West Main and Garrett Streets, in a sort of triangle. Charles Giametta wrote in The Daily Progress that a “1960s’ Survey showed Vinegar Hill’s Black b+usinesses grossed $1.6 million (A Billion, today), in 1959. There were five restaurants, four grocery stores, three barbershops, two furniture stores, an appliance store, a music shop, a shoe repair shop, a jewelry store, a taxicab stand, a tailor shop, a drugstore, an office equipment store, a printing shop, a dry-cleaning firm, a laundromat, a hat-cleaning shop, a gas station, and two second-hand and antique shops.” In This Essay I explore some of the reasons why Charlottesville’s Officials demolished Vinegar Hill, thus ending the cultural and business soul of Black Charlottesville.

From 1861 to 1961, African Americans served as the trusted servants that Wealthy Whites in the City of Charlottesville and in Albemarle County had used to amass fortunes during Slavery. After Slavery, Ex-Slaves became Loyal and Trustworthy Domestics who took care of all of the Rich Whites’ familial needs as Butlers, Maids, Cooks, Barbers, and Nannies. Hundreds of the above Domestics were domiciled on Vinegar Hill from the 1800s to the 1960s.The basis of the problem was most of the above Domestics and Laborers had never been paid a living wage; therefore, their lifestyles reflected their economic status. Domestics had been renters, who were at the mercy of Absentee Landlords—especially those who lived on Vinegar Hill. Landlords cared little about maintaining the properties they were renting to African Americans by keeping them up-to-par.

Alan Bruns, Writing In, The Richmond Times Dispatch, Sunday, November 16, 1958, tells us that Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA), was studying 18-Acres, bounded by Main Street, Fourth Street N.W., and Preston Avenue, and had planned to clear the whole area, layout new streets, and utilities, and resell the land for commercial redevelopment. This was just four years after “The Brown Decision.”  Charlottesville’s City Council got busy putting into place policies that paved the way that led to the displacement of 158 Families,140 of which were Black, from their homes, businesses, neighborhood, and their Church. They started by enacting “New Building Codes,” so that all the homes and businesses were classed as “Substandard.”  People were no longer being considered at all. The City Officials used the word, “SLUM,” to discount anyone, or anything, existing on the Vinegar Hill Area. City Officials put forth a Plan to relocate all of the Black people from Vinegar Hill to Public Housing Units located far away from Downtown Charlottesville. The City, according to Bruns, “thought that the ‘SLUM,’ should be cleared immediately and all that land should be redeveloped. Using “Urban Renewal.”  There was little attention paid to the fact that Vinegar Hill had long been the heart of Black residential, cultural, and business interests for all of Black Charlottesville.

Vinegar Hill Post Demolition. Photos courtesy of Bushman Dreyfus Architects

Shortly After WWWII, Just as Black Veterans returned home to Vinegar Hill from the European War Theater, rumors that the Charlottesville Government was planning on Razing their Homeplaces to the ground, However, financial difficulties foiled the City’s Plans, up until May 17, 1954. Soon after the Supreme Court’s Ruling, the City Council appointed a Committee to do a fast-paced study to find ways to remove the Black people off of Vinegar Hill.

This Committee was composed of Key Members of the Retail Merchants Association, The Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce, The League of Women Voters, and their Representatives on City Council. The Committee did a Survey and found that, “The Vinegar Hill Area had 549 persons living in 154 Dwelling-Units. These Units had 75 Indoor Toilets, 70 Out-Of-Doors, and 60 Baths and Showers. Rent in the Area ran from a high of $65.00-per month to a low of $7.00-per month. In addition to residential structures, there were 24 Nonresidential Structures, while some were very newly constructed buildings.”

Eminent domain always follows a certain identifiable path; Castigation, condemnation, property confiscation, and forced removal,” The first phase is “Castigation.”  Here, the local government declares, loudly, that an Area is a “SLUM!” Then local government will, condemn the area, by saying that its buildings are all, “Predominantly Substandard.”  All of the condemned area’s properties then become confiscated. Local government will pay the owners of the confiscated properties whatever it considers reasonable value for their confiscated residential and or business properties.”  The previous owners are forced to move out after collecting the paucity of a settlement for their real estate plus an equally minimal amount of money for so-called moving expenses. Lastly, the buildings are razed. Once residential units and businesses have been torn down, local government seeks out private investors to come and commercially develop the area. Developers then construct “Condo-Complexes, Strip Malls, Motels/Hotels, or Grocery Stores, connected to national chains, and or, will erect State and Federal building facilities. Millions of dollars are made by big business owners and construction firms during and after “The Eminent Doman Processes.”  Displaced home-and-business owners rarely got paid enough from their confiscated properties and the end result of Eminent Domain is gentrification. Those living in Vinegar Hill, with few exceptions, did not have the Right To Vote, and therefore had no way to launch a political confrontation against those who were victimizing them. Due to their displacement, residents were forced into low-income enclaves called, “Government Projects.” In Charlottesville, these consisted of several housing complexes including but not limited to, West Haven, Friendship Court, and Prospect Avenue.

Blacks Had Always Been the Victims of Urban Removal on Vinegar Hill, says Mary Rawlings, an Oral Historian, who states that from the earliest days of the Hill’s history, Vinegar Hill was originally called “Random Row,” because of the way the first houses were located on the Hill. The name, “Random Row,” was incorporated into the Town of Charlottesville in 1835.Mary tells us that wave-after-wave of Irish Immigrants invaded Charlottesville during the mid-to-1800s, due to The Potato-Famine in Ireland. The Irish, at first, lived among the house servants and freed slaves, but gradually took over complete control of the entire neighborhood, renaming “Random Row,” to “Vinegar Hill” in honor of Ireland’s Vinegar Hill, revolutionary battle had taken place. Most of the Freed Slaves were pushed off Vinegar Hill before the coming of the Civil War in 1861. The Black residents who had been pushed away from the Hill moved back at the end of the Civil War. Ann Carter, another Oral Historian, says that “Blacks were on The Hill before the Irish.”

For over A century, Vinegar Hill was The Center of Charlottesville’s Black Community. A.E. Arrington was the Executive Director who oversaw its razing. Arrington said he had talked with the people on the Hill beforehand, and he had been assured that, “Those People on that Hill are happy to be moving into a place (West Haven), with indoor Heat, Plumbing, and Bathrooms. They know that I’m giving them a much better place to live in than they’re moving out of. I think they know that I’m doing them a favor…”  Arrington spoke mainly to The League of Women Voters who had no idea of what Vinegar Hill was genuinely like.

Mr. George Ferguson, Jr., a Member of the NAACP, was born on Hill’s Southern Edge where he grew up. George, Jr. eventually started a successful Undertaker Business on Ridge Street. He informs us that, “Vinegar Hill was far from being full of just Slum-Dwellers.”  There were the presence of Federated women clubs, secret societies, and fraternal orders, which met in various members Homes and at Zion Union Baptist Church. The young people on the Hill, says Ferguson, were extremely interested in the Church. Zion Union became a Center for Social and Political interaction for all who dwelt on Vinegar Hill. That is how the Whole Community became so Close-Knit.

By December 23, 1963, Vinegar Hill was a Ghost Town. All of the buildings were abandoned. By February 10, 1964, demolition equipment moved through the area, leaving behind nothing but rubbish, and the nostalgia of those who had lost their Communal soul..Charlottesville’s City Officials feared that The Voting Rights Act would become Law Next. So, they wanted to remove every kind of connection Black people had from the Downtown area, even the Removal of their House of Worship, Zion Union.

Zion Union Baptist Church stood at 212-214th Street N.W. across from Jefferson Elementary School, had been at that location since 1907. On June 6, 1962, Rev. I. A. J. Kennedy—due to old age—passed the Mantel on to Rev. Henry Floyd Johnson. Rev. Johnson had only served that Congregation two years, when he had to inform his Church Family that CRHA had taken ownership of Church and had decided that the building would be demolished. The Whole Congregation was immediately ordered to vacate the Church’s Premises. Rev. Johnson continued to conduct Services for a time at Jefferson Elementary for about a year and eight months until December 20, 1964.On August 28, 1966, the New Zion Union Baptist Church opened their doors in a Great-New-Brick Building on Preston Avenue.

By 1973 Alan Clements’ Citizens Commonwealth Corp had constructed the first building on what was once Vinegar Hill, which had remained vacant since 1963. Clements’ Corp had purchased most of the land on the Hill from CRHA. In 1972, Citizens Commonwealth Corp had its first building constructed on Vinegar Hill. Black businesses and residents were all gone! In their Places were a white-owned businesses. Wyatt Johnson and his Brother had run a Shoe Repair Shop near Vinegar Hill. Mr. Johnson was one of the displaced Black people who was able to purchase another Home, after his forced removal from the area. Although he only received $7,400.00 from CRHA for his Home and Business, he had saved up enough money to build another home for $15,000.00. Most of the displaced people off Vinegar Hill were without the resources to buy New Homes, and ended up having to move into the City’s First Public Housing Project (West Haven).

  So, I watched, day-after-day, in the 1960s, as the wrecking cranes, bulldozers, and dump trucks tore down and hauled away the Cultural Soul of Black Charlottesville. I was thinking, “They’re murdering that community by killing its businesses and destroying Its residences. What I witnessed made me sick to my stomach. It has stayed with me ever since. Because we were too quiet about the above, the same thing kept happening to Star Hill, Gospel Hill, Fifeville, We must not let them shove us around any longer! BLACK LIVES MATTER!

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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