Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

The Community of Vinegar Hill before it was razed.

As you may have heard, white nationalists took to the streets of Charlottesville again on Saturday night.  They chanted their racist, anti-Semitic words. They vowed to be back.

I have no doubt they will.  They have chosen our city as their place to take a stand, and now, we must all do all we can to fight their hate.

If you’d like to do something measurable and long-lasting, if you’d like to challenge the privilege rhetoric that seems to speak of Charlottesville as a bastion of tolerance and inclusion, if you’d like to be a part of the way art makes change, gives hope, and teaches, please consider making a donation to the Vinegar Hill Monument fund.

This monument will commemorate Vinegar Hill,

a neighborhood that no longer exists. It was an African American neighborhood full of African American owned homes and businesses just west of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA that was razed to the ground by the City of Charlottesville in 1964.

The sculpture will stand outside the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a place that has been historically black and continues to be so.  When I talked with Jefferson School director Andrea Douglass, she told me that the monument would not be something to revere but something to experience.  “People can walk inside it and be a part of it. They can live within it.”

In this time when so many people are protecting monuments to our nation’s racist past, here’s a powerful, meaningful way to remember a community that was a victim of that racism. Your donations will help make this monument a reality, and they are much needed since public funding has been voted down by the city.  Every dollar helps.

Thanks for considering a donation.

To learn more and donate, please visit this page – https://www.gofundme.com/vinegar-hill-monument.  

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

At the “back” side of the Bremo plantations, there’s a community of African American families, many of whom have ties back to the days of slavery on those plantations.  If you’ve read my book The Slaves Have Names, you know many of those families – the Creasys, the Thomases, the Smiths, and many more.

Within this community, there is a beautiful school called Dunbar. Dunbar was an original Rosenwald School, built in 1923-24, using funds from the local community, the Rosenwald Fund (started by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, Inc.) and the local government.  These schools were often the ONLY source of education for African American children in rural areas of the South.

Dunbar was open until the 1950s, and so many people I know attended this school up through 8th grade or so before moving over to the local black high, Abrams, for the final years of their education.

As you may know, many Rosenwald Schools are in danger of collapse due to neglect and disuse, but my friends Carmen and Stanley Smith are working hard to save Dunbar. For the past few years, they have been tirelessly cleaning the school, shoring up its structure, and working to make it a community center for everyone in the area.  (You can see some phenomenal pictures of the school here.)

We Can Help

Carmen and Stanley are in the midst of a major fundraising campaign so that they can complete the restoration and the transformation of this building. If you would like to contribute – and I hope you will – please follow this link and make your donation. (Please note – there is a problem with the site at this moment, so please keep trying if you’d like to donate.)

If you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve, then you know I believe these important pieces of history and community story are vital in our process of healing and knowing one another as a nation.  I cannot wait to see what Carmen and Stanley do here, and I hope you will join me in being part of this great work.

Make your donation here. 

The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia – An Opportunity to Present

The Slave Dwelling Project Conference at the University of Virginia

In October, researchers, historians, genealogists, and others are invited to attend the Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape Symposium put on by The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia. Currently, the Symposium is accepting presentation proposals, and I will be putting forth a panel proposal. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like more information about the Symposium, please visit this link. 

Hope to see you here in Virginia in October. 

A Threat to a Historic African American Neighborhood in Wingina, Virginia

threat to historic African American neighborhood in Wingina, Virginia

The Wingina Post Office Store that Woodsons constructed.

In several nearby counties, historic African American neighborhoods are under threat from pipelines that will cross through or set up pumping stations directly in their communities. Many people would prefer a utility pipeline not run near their homes, but African American neighborhoods are quite often targeted as places of “low impact” by utility companies.

Such is the case in the community of Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia.  Historically, Wingina was a riverfront community of several plantations. As is often the case in Virginia, the newl- freed individuals who once made up the enslaved communities on these plantations came to settle near the plantations on which they once worked and lived.  In Wingina, many people bought land and built their lives near Union Hill Plantation.

The Woodson Family – A Family of Distinction

Rhamonia Woodson, a descendant of enslaved people from Union Hill and Oak Ridge Plantations, recounts her family’s deep roots and rich contributions to this community in her letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission:

Our ancestors built the James River Canal and Kanawha Bridge.  . . Not only are our families’ properties, acquired after the Civil War, part of the cultural landscape of historically important houses and historic districts of Nelson County, but we were the builders of those historic resources. The Wingina Post Office Store, Montezuma, Bon Aire, just to name a few, are a portfolio of our accomplishments, recognized and often registered historic manifests that our Woodson ancestors helped to establish.

We started from the Union Hill and moved, not far, to Cabell Road. So proudly, we uphold our existence in this community, maintaining, amongst the families related by slavery, a cherished bond, which we still gather to celebrate. We are still here! It’s the truest form of life we know. I strongly believe that a decision to use this Wingina community on the ACP [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] proposed route a target practice of racial discrimination.

I couldn’t agree with Ms. Woodson more.  When government agencies and corporations discount – or worse even target – African American communities as lacking not only historic significance but also present day importance, they are acting out of the systemic, racist practices that have governed our country since the day it was created.  We cannot allow this practice to continue.

I stand with the Woodson, Venable, Dillard, Early, White, Rose, Fleming, Mayo, and Horsley families of Wingina as they oppose this threat to their home and their history.

If you know of African American communities under threat from actions such as these, please do let me know. I’d be happy to share this space as a way for you to spread the word about these terrible acts.  

Help Save The Buena Vista Colored School

Help Save the Buena Vista Colored SchoolIf you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve*, then you know how much I treasure the stories and history found in black schools. The school in that story is very similar to a beautiful, old building full of history and stories that community members in Buena Vista are working so hard to restore and preserve.  The Buena Vista Colored School was the only school for African American children to attend grades 1-7 from the years 1892-1957, and this particular building was in use from 1914-1957 (the previous building was destroyed in a fire).

Even though I set both of my books, Steele Secrets* and Charlotte and the Twelve, in a town based on Buena Vista, which is where my father-in-law and husband were raised, it wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I actually learned the rich history of the BV Colored School for the first time.  It’s tucked up and out of town a bit and now sits surrounded by apartment buildings.

But it’s an absolutely beautiful structure – all-brick with wide-plank floors and the chalkboards still ready and waiting on the walls.  You can get a great look around in the video for this news story.

I hope you’ll consider helping to spread the word and support this great work being down in this small mountain town here in Virginia.  We need to preserve these places so that the full story of our history is told and remembered.

Get more information about the school and how you can help here.