Black Charlottesville Has Seen This All Before

The return of violent white-supremacist rallies to the city is a special threat to its African American community, but not a new one.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—For the black community, life goes on. On Monday morning, painted-over swastikas and anti-fascist signs still decorated corners on the main streets. News vans still zipped around town, and stragglers still ventured to visit the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park and the street corner a few blocks away, where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was struck and killed by a car allegedly driven by white-nationalist James Fields. But when I walked into the Cherry Avenue Barber Shop, nobody was talking about the return of the Klan or the violence that had just rocked the city and the country.

“Yo, did you watch Power?” One patron, who only identified himself as Brandon, was busy leading a dialogue about the Starz television show, the latest episode of which was released just hours after President Trump’s first ill-conceived comments on Heyer’s death. The conversation turned, as barbershop conversations often do, on the show and on bits of culture. What the hell is Tasha doing? Why is Tariq always in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Master barber Dedric Cooke was quiet, until he wasn’t. “I didn’t watch it. Too much going on.” I asked him what was on his mind. “They were supposed to be here for a peaceful protest,” Cooke told me, referring to the hundreds-strong group of white nationalists and white supremacists who’d descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend, “but everything they did was the opposite!”

Cooke’s comments sparked the barely contained discussion about the Ku Klux Klan that seemed to wait behind every topic of everyday banter. What I encountered in Charlottesville wasn’t fear, but familiarity. Black Charlottesville has dealt with racism, has been born and raised under statues of Lee and Jefferson, and has fought the Klan. And it has lived with—and lives with—white supremacy.

“It scared people that didn’t expect it,” Cooke said. “I was raised by somebody who came through the civil-rights movement and saw the Klan firsthand. I didn’t think I would see it, but I knew people were capable of it. It’s not acceptable for blacks or Hispanics to act that way, but people accept this kind of stuff, because they’re doing it in the name of heritage or white supremacy.”

Just a short drive down the road, people shuffled in and out of the Brown’s convenience store. Four old-school gas pumps dominate the parking lot outside, and customers can get a free piece of fried chicken if they fill up their tanks. During the day, members of the Brown family operate the establishment, and fry baskets of the chicken made by the same family recipe that’s been around for generations. When it’s fresh, the chicken is golden-brown, hot, and delicious, and stains the paper bags in which it is passed out.

Mike Brown, who manages the store and mans the cash register, was also reluctant to talk about the deadly clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters that’d just roiled his family’s home town. But reluctance soon gave way to impassioned anger. “I think it was horrible,” Brown said. “I think that the city never should’ve gave a hate group permission to come in the community and get a permit. I understand freedom of speech, but where do you draw the line at? Would you let ISIS come here and have a rally too?”

But Brown was also not surprised, nor was he much afraid, even of the heavily armed militiamen who paraded down his street Friday. When I asked why, his answer was simple: “Our ancestors been through this before.”

Since the dawn of the Second Klan in the early 1900s, the hate group has had a presence in Charlottesville, and donated to the University of Virginia in 1921. In the 1950s, during and after the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, Charlottesville was a hotbed for “massive resistance” campaigns by white citizens against integration, which inevitably attracted the attention of white-supremacist leaders. According to Michael James’s book The Conspiracy of the Good, after Brown outlawed segregation in public schools, white Charlottesville dragged its feet. Sarah Patton Boyle, a white civil-rights activist in the area, wrote articles trying to persuade white citizens to accept the ruling.

In the summer of 1956, Washington, D.C., White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan leader Frederick John Kasper, along with Alabama Klan leader Asa Carter—who later co-wrote Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” line—led rallies of white supremacists in McIntire Park. The whites-only park was named after benefactor Paul Goodloe McIntire, who also donated the park and the Lee statue at the center of last weekend’s violence. Those Klan rallies ended with Klan members burning crosses in Boyle’s yard. Eventually white people simply closed all of the schools in Charlottesville instead of suffering integration, and created their own private school system. One of those schools was named after Robert E. Lee.

Although their resistance eventually waned, and Charlottesville schools were integrated, white supremacy would still exert its will against black people in the area. By the 1960s, the virtually all-black district of Vinegar Hill found itself in the crosshairs of a Charlottesville “urban renewal” program, which sought to redevelop increasingly valuable land between the University of Virginia and downtown. Wielding a new ordinance allowing the city to take control of and demolish unsanitary homes, the city council proposed and Charlottesville citizens voted in 1964 to bulldoze the entire neighborhood, and provide public housing for the residents elsewhere.

Black Vinegar Hill residents had no power to stop the demolition, because—just a year before the Voting Rights Act—they were mostly disenfranchised by a poll tax. A plaque near the place Vinegar Hill used to stand, which now hosts coffee shops and trendy restaurants, notes simply that “many of the residents were denied a say in their own future.” That plaque stands just blocks away from where Heather Heyer was killed Saturday.

It’s this white-supremacist legacy—which many living members of the community experienced firsthand—that animates much of the black response to the resurgence of violent rallies in the area.

“I grew up in Bessemer, Alabama,” said Deborah McDowell, a professor of Literary Studies at UVA and the director of the university’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. “I’m 66 years old. I came of age in one of the crucibles of segregation and civil-rights activism, and we were celebrating my mom’s birthday on September 15, when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963.”

While Donald Trump has created a national firestorm over his remarks on Heyer’s death and the weekend’s violence, McDowell sees the entire incident—from the removal of statues, to the “Unite the Right” rally, to the uproar over Trump’s comments—as only scratching the surface of oppression in black communities. “There is a limited value of statements, and statements can become nothing but alibis,” McDowell said. “So Donald Trump could come out and say the exact right thing, and that would probably satisfy people of all different persuasions. But he would still be creating policies from his perch in the White House that are still screwing people left and right. Again, that is my issue with symbols. I would rather that people put as much energy into getting people a livable wage as they did in taking down that statue.”

To McDowell’s point, even Charlottesville has much deeper racial problems than removing a statue can fix. The same process of displacement that destroyed Vinegar Hill is still uprooting black communities in town. The proportion of black residents in Charlottesville is steadily declining, as is the percentage of black students enrolled at UVA. Black families make up barely any of the households in the city making over $60,000 a year, and according to McDowell, few black employees of the university can afford to live in town, and many live outside the city in lower-income neighborhoods developing on highway corridors.

Even for those who manage to live in the city, black people make up 70 percent of all warrantless “stop and frisk” pat downs from police, despite making up less than 20 percent of the population. And despite living in an especially protected enclave, black students at UVA are not immune to that brutality, a fact illustrated in blood in 2015 when Martese Johnson was beaten by officers outside of a city liquor store.

In the wake of the weekend’s rallies, Johnson, now a graduate who is currently suing the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control over that incident, sent a letter to incoming black freshmen, writing:

College would not be the perfect racial and cultural melting pot that could prove my elders wrong in their steadfast anxiety toward prolific racial intermingling. Instead, my experiences at the University of Virginia taught me exactly where their deep-rooted interracial anxiety had originated …

We must remember that the Ku Klux Klan, Alt-Right, and all other radical right revolutionaries are mere spawns and remnants of larger institutions that have made it their business to discriminate against difference.

For activists in the area, that connection between the sensational violence of the Klan and other hate groups, and the daily discrimination that black people in Charlottesville face, is one that precious few leaders are willing to make.

Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner, perhaps the loudest voice on race issues in the Charlottesville area, is one of those activists. I met with him and the local NAACP chapter at its Monday night event at the Jefferson-Madison Library, next door to the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he told me before the event. “[White nationalists] took over our town like we didn’t even live here, but that’s already been happening, you see.”

When it came time in the event to talk about what had happened at the park, the eyes in the room all fell on Turner. He turned around in his chair, with his blue NAACP baseball cap bobbing when he spoke. “People want to have a conversation,” he began. “Rightfully so. But see we’ve had conversations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

Perhaps it was fitting that the NAACP event—which had been planned months ago—was a showing of Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th, which has garnered accolades and media attention for its survey of how overt racism and white-supremacist extremism became codified and perpetuated as the modern American criminal-justice system. The mixed-race crowd in the drafty old library room sat around a single projector, straining to hear the film’s messages over a single speaker. One quote from the film garnered more than a few nods: “Systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves.”

I stopped back by Brown’s convenience store on my drive out of Charlottesville. The chicken is just that good. Perhaps sparked by our previous conversation, Mike Brown had more to say about the rallies. “This all stemmed from what—a statue? Until people’s hearts change, it’s not gonna matter,” he said. “You can leave it up, or you can take it down, but you’re gonna disrespect me with it up and you’re still going to disrespect me with it down. What difference does it make?”