This essay is excerpted from Pure America, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
By Elizabeth Catte
In 1916, Charlottesville’s Daily Progress reported on the city’s recent Halloween parade, finding one particular moment most enjoyable: “a gay battalion of Ku Klux Klan came thundering down from the heights of the Midway, recalling other days. Many a dusky denizen of the ‘bottom’ was seen to shrink instinctively back into the shadows of Preston Avenue.” That the Daily Progress found this battalion “gay” is likely connected to the fact that these Klan members were not adults, but children in their Halloween costumes. It amused white observers to watch these children get their first taste of making Black citizens shrink back into the shadows in fear.
Today, if you try to follow the route of this parade, you’ll wind about a mile through Charlottesville’s downtown mall and end up at a Staples store awkwardly plopped just at the fringes of the downtown core. There, just beyond the Staples, the only landmark that conveys something of Charlottesville’s past in an easily discernible way is a school that went up in 1926. This is the Jefferson School—now a community center—which was created to be one of only ten Black high schools in Virginia. The little parading Klan members in 1916 wouldn’t have caught sight of the Robert E. Lee statue because its placement was still eight years in the future; though perhaps by the time it went up in 1924, some of those children had become the young men who took the same parade route.
In 1916, cities like Charlottesville, which had passed “An Ordinance to Secure for White and Colored People a Separate Location of Residence for Each Race” in 1912, had their futures in the hands of a legal challenge making its way to the Supreme Court. This case, originating from Louisville, Kentucky, would decide if government-instituted racial segregation in residential areas was constitutional. Charlottesville’s ordinance had stated that a Black person occupying a home in a predominately white neighborhood (or vice versa) could be punished with a fine or a minimum of thirty days in jail. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that those ordinances violated the Fourteenth Amendment because they prevented white people from disposing of their property how they saw fit. If a white person wanted to sell a property to a Black person, the Supreme Court ruled, that was his constitutionally protected right.
The Supreme Court, however, took pains to clarify: It is the purpose of such enactments, and, it is frankly avowed, it will be their ultimate effect, to require by law, at least in residential districts, the compulsory separation of the races on account of color. Such action is said to be essential to maintain the purity of the races….The case presented does not deal with an attempt to prohibit the amalgamation of the races. The right to which the ordinance annulled was the civil right of a white man to dispose of his property if he saw fit to do so to a person of color.
In other words, the Supreme Court explained that it understood such ordinances had been motivated by a desire to maintain racial purity, and that its ruling should not be seen as obstructive to the broad aim of preventing amalgamation. By amalgamation, it meant, similar to miscegenation, the combining of races through procreation. In 1924, Virginia would create its Racial Integrity Act as its most explicit method of prevention.
The Supreme Court ruling meant that Charlottesville had to devise new ways to contain Black people geographically in order to preserve racial purity. The city leveraged other types of zoning ordinances, encouraged private contracts that produced segregation through deed restriction, manipulated the placement of utilities, and marked territory by Klan parades and, eventually, Confederate statues. But concentrating Black people into one area of the city also risked an outcome that white city leaders did not enjoy thinking about, either: that Black people would invest in their neighborhoods, find ways to grow their communities, and pass some generational wealth to their children. Limiting this potential meant restricting education, healthcare, employment, and income for Black people in Charlottesville as well. A study commissioned by the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition in 2020 found that after 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants were unconstitutional, the city “increased economically restrictive zoning as a proxy for explicit racial restrictions” to an extent so great that these same zoning practices now impede the city’s ability to grow.
In the 1960s, the Preston Avenue area where Klan-robed children had once frightened Black people “back into the shadows” became part of the target area for a city beautification campaign. Just a decade prior, the Supreme Court had affirmed the government’s right to utilize eminent domain solely for the purpose of beautification and redevelopment. In 1960, the mayor of Charlottesville, Thomas Mitchie, looked out at Preston Avenue and its larger Vinegar Hill neighborhood and concluded, “we are fortunate that the worst slum area in the city lends itself beautifully to plans for urban renewal.” What Mitchie found fortunate about this arrangement was that what he called a slum was located on property that was valuable to the city. The economic and physical growth of the city’s downtown was stagnating as suburbanization pushed residents and their business enterprises further out to the fringes of the city.
Charlottesville began demolishing the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in 1965. The city, however, deferred the most aggressive redevelopment of its new blank canvas to generations that followed in the 1980s. Separated by a span of fifteen years, future city leaders often did not connect the growth of the downtown and the creation of what we know today as the downtown mall to a racist urban renewal scheme. The passage of time, in other words, helped them achieve moral distance between what happened in the past and this new era in city development. In 2011, after decades of pressure, the city finally recognized its actions, and the city council delivered a public apology for the destruction of Vinegar Hill:
Now therefore be it resolved that we, the undersigned members of the Charlottesville City Council recognize the African-American owned businesses, homes and property that were destroyed or damaged by the razing of Vinegar Hill; acknowledge that the events leading to the destruction of this neighborhood did not adequately include those who were to be affected; mourn the lost sense of community caused by the demolition of this neighborhood; and for the harm caused we do hereby apologize for the City government’s role in the destruction of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood, and affirm the lessons learned from the City’s actions will be remembered.
Today, the memory of Vinegar Hill, both what it was and how it was taken away, is at the center of many restorative projects. There’s the New Hill Development Corporation, for example, that intends to build resources for “financial empowerment” with Charlottesville’s Black community. The city itself has plans to incorporate Vinegar Hill more explicitly as part of the downtown’s history through on-site plaques, markers, and memorials. At the Jefferson School, there’s now a project underway, led by local resident Jordy Yager, to physically map inequality in Charlottesville by georeferencing property records. Projects like these are intended to keep structural inequality front and center as the modern city develops plans for affordable housing, negotiates with private developers, and determines what services it should fund or cut.
When I find myself near the statue of Robert E. Lee now, I am forced to concede that the physical world that white leaders of the past hoped would endure in fact did. Practice and research has taught me to sense the absence of the Black neighborhood that once stood not far from the spot, and nothing more than observation is required to see what replaced it: restaurants, retail, and pedestrian space that caters primarily to an upscale, white clientele. A city once ordered to preserve white racial purity is not so easily unordered.
Beliefs about racial purity in Virginia functioned like a Newton’s cradle. Ideas became the spheres. Lift up the sphere that contains What We Want to Believe and send it crashing down. Kinetic energy lifts the sphere that contains What We Fear. Back and forth though these collisions, momentum is ongoing. All the power is saved. It has no end. If the science is sound it can continue forever, shockwave after shockwave after shockwave.
In August 2017, white supremacists who had organized through the Unite the Right campaign gathered once again at their shrines in Charlottesville, including Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. They were demonstrating violent power for their own pleasure but also, much like their predecessors in 1924, seeking to make their connections with the past explicit.
Many people were perplexed by the group’s fixation on Charlottesville. There was, of course, ongoing controversy over the city’s two Confederate statues and their potential removal from public space. Hate groups that converged on Charlottesville throughout that summer were using the monuments as convenient shorthand for what they felt was their wider entitlement—a world ordered and marked by white power. This explanation was understandable, but also not entirely satisfying. After all, New Orleans had removed its statues three months earlier, and while there were protests and agitation, the city had not been swarmed.
Maybe it was the Trump administration, the way his presidency and party had emboldened white supremacists? Hadn’t Iowa Republican Steve King, like a Madison Grant impersonator, been tweeting bullshit that past spring about how “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies?” Wasn’t Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s key political advisors, also trapped in some armpit of ideas that hadn’t been washed since 1924?
Perhaps there were even deeper and more clandestine forces at work in the white nationalist world, some power struggle within or among groups vying for dominant positions and claimed geographies. The rally’s primary organizer, Jason Kessler, was a Charlottesville resident and a graduate of the University of Virginia. He had obvious ambitions toward securing an elevated place for himself among his fellow white supremacists.
As far as explaining why Unite the Right gathered in Charlottesville, none of these suggestions were wrong. They were just incomplete. That incompleteness became a void nervously filled with a familiar refrain: “This is not who we are,” many people in Charlottesville said. “Our city will not tolerate division.”
For others, however, the white nationalist rallies were a more combustible version of what the city had long been. Charlottesville was a finely articulated white space moving through time, impinging upon Black lives, first with enslavement and violence, then through residential segregation, statues, and racial integrity laws. Eventually, a backlash to civil rights bled into urban renewal. Now, it seemed, the city had settled upon an intentional strategy of finding itself powerless in the face of the status quo. In 2005, for example, long-serving city councilor Kathy Galvin, then a member of the city’s school board, responded to a report about racial inequality in the city’s school systems:
The educational system is in and of itself neutral, even passive. White parents make it work for them through persistence and volunteer efforts. Black parents on the other hand expect the schools to work for them….As a result, white kids learn to prepare for college due to their parents’ advocacy and black kids are left in the lurch due to their parents’ lack of knowledge or experience with a good education.
The city also sometimes felt like a hostage to wealth and private development. Why could the city find ways to build homes for wealthy people but not everyone else? City planner Brian Haluska explained, “People complain that we’re building ‘housing for millionaires’ but those [wealthier] people don’t just go away. Instead, they’ll outbid lower-income people on a $400,000 house and put a $300,000 addition on it.” In Charlottesville, a lower-income homebuyer is now considered someone who lives in a $400,000 house. The University of Virginia, now turning a corner with new projects involving its history of enslavement and material improvements for non-faculty staff, is still one of the city’s largest landowners, both as a public entity and as a private foundation.
On one hand, to say “This is not who we are” claims a truth that the days of mob rule and indiscriminate violence have passed. On the other, it denies the truth that other forms of acceptable destabilization have also worked to deny others their rightful legitimacy.
These competing claims were front and center in Charlottesville’s November 2017 election. Even before the violence that summer, the campaign of community organizer Nikuyah Walker centered a promise to “unmask the illusion” of Charlottesville. To NPR, she referenced long-standing, unaddressed racial disparities and the unequal lives of lower- income residents. She explained, “The illusion [is] that we are a town everybody can thrive in.”
The city’s past leaders had often favored diluting these realities by aggressively employing aspirational narratives, the illusions that Walker referenced, that Charlottesville was a progressive, liberal enclave. Leaders seemed to hope that what the city could or would not deliver in urgent, material improvements, it made up for with good intentions. This diversion is common to politics generally, but there is something uniquely local about it is as well. The city of Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” could never be rotten from the inside. For Walker, and for the people who supported her campaign, it was not enough to name problems and propose solutions. The success of any proposal, her campaign implied, needed to be built on a foundation of honest and overdue reckoning about race and class.
In November, Walker secured the most votes in the city council race, and so became the first Black woman to become mayor in Charlottesville. It is tempting to wrap this detail into a narrative of progress, to hammer home that this story begins on a balmy day in 1924 when the Confederate statues were new, and that it ends with this cold November moment when the city regained its momentum on election night from attacks that radiated out from those same monuments. I could take advantage of the obvious here and tell you that the architects of Virginia’s racial integrity laws would certainly find Walker’s election a distressing turn of events.
But I want to end on a more ordinary moment. First, I should explain that in Charlottesville, “ordinary” has different meanings now. Today it is an ordinary thing, for example, to plan for the return of white supremacist violence. But it is also ordinary to be deeply motivated to take care of other residents. This care takes many forms. One involves a more truthful telling of the city’s past, a secondary and often forgotten focus of a group of residents who assumed the responsibility of deliberating the fate of its Confederate statues. This body, the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, once said this responsibility involves breaking “the chain of racist transmission,” challenging convictions about the past that work to conceal injustice. The statues, for example, were born of deeply racist origins. Clinging to narratives of their placement that frame them as benign honors has helped conceal this fact.
Now, even though the statues remain, it is an ordinary thing to find and enjoy evidence of this truth-telling in public space. Some efforts are anonymous. When the New York Times released its “1619 Project,” a collective work attuned to the four-hundred-year anniversary of the arrival of America’s first enslaved Africans, simple chalk graffiti around the city, red- numbered 1619s, called back to it. Flowers often appear at the small plaque that marks the spot of Charlottesville’s slave auction block. Sometimes the word “slaves” is crossed out and improved in chalk so that the rewritten text reads: “On this site human beings were bought and sold.”
One of the most sustained challenges to the illusory narratives is not anonymous at all, but a well-attended downtown walking tour conceptualized by Jalane Schmidt and Andrea Douglas, two Black historians. The tour, which is free, uses monuments and downtown geography to branch into deeper conversations about race, space, and the city’s past. Last summer, just as the historians were concluding one of their tours, I passed through the park where the statue of Robert E. Lee sits. It was an ordinary day, which means the city was on high alert for acts of violence; on this occasion it was even more so because the second anniversary of the 2017 attacks was days away.
The statue of Lee, which most often acts as a cold voyeur of the lives of unhoused people and downtown workers, sits in a tiny park. Its closest neighbors are the main branch of the Charlottesville library, where my partner works, and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. When I moved to the area, local historians explained to me that the downtown historical society had a reputation for being the white historical society, positioning itself in ways—both subtle and not-so- subtle—against the Jefferson School, the community’s African American heritage center.
It didn’t take long to understand what they meant. The historical society’s presence was conspicuously absent in the city’s public programming about its Confederate monuments. It was also obstructive in the attempts historians and reporters made to find out information about the provenance of Klan paraphernalia in its collections. “I think it’s fair to say things have changed,” former director Stephen Meeks told the press. I have never understood if he was suggesting that we were in a more enlightened era, and therefore didn’t need to trouble ourselves with things he felt it was best for us not to know, or if he was complaining about the new terms on which the community wanted to know about its past. In July 2019, when the city commemorated the life of lynching victim John Henry James, a Black ice cream vendor killed by a white mob in 1898, Meeks’s replacement used the occasion and his personal Facebook page to remind people that white people were lynched too.
That day, things were relatively quiet in the park despite the looming anniversary. I was not there to linger. I was simply trying to get from one place to the next. But then, coming past the library, I saw police snipers on the roof of the historical society, where they had staked out a vantage point to monitor the park below. Later, I learned that the people who had attended the walking tour had also noticed their presence. In the two years since the attacks, heavy surveillance is a new form of daily violence, which the city feels is an acceptable trade-off in preventing larger threats to public order.
The historical society wanted to be helpful to the police, and perhaps felt it could not refuse their request. Objectively, I can acknowledge that. But here is what I saw: from atop it, agents of the state pointed guns below at a public attempting to break the racist chain of transmission, members of the same public that had attempted and failed to enlist the historical society in their prior efforts.
The city leaders who celebrated the placement of Lee’s statue in 1924 promised that everyone who came to that spot would receive the lessons of the past. “To teach” can also mean to make someone suffer to an extent so great that it has a conditioning effect—That will teach you a lesson. By the consequence of their mortality, these leaders deferred the pleasure of instruction to their statue, unliving but no less rooted in what they hoped would be a lasting articulation of their power. Attempts to make this power endure can look like repressive laws, failed science, and combustible violence. But it can also feel like a gun pointed at you on an ordinary day. And sometimes that’s exactly what it is. ■
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