In the early 1900s, University of Virginia professor Paul Barringer wrote about Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Any type of education for African Americans was a mistake, he wrote, because “any education will be used by the negro politically, for politics once successful is now an instinctive form of warfare.”
“Why do we study African American history? You can’t understand what’s operating white supremacy without understanding the black people they’re responding to,” Claudrena Harold, a professor of African American and African studies and history, said Monday during a panel about the history of black Charlottesville and how African Americans have responded to the 2017 white supremacist rallies.
Louis Nelson, a professor of architectural history and the vice provost for academic outreach, moderated the panel with Harold, local activist and filmmaker Tanesha Hudson and activist and recent Charlottesville High School graduate Zyahna Bryant.
The area should reckon with the idea that the white supremacists and racists who marched through Charlottesville’s streets in 2017 did not come from nowhere, the panelists said: participants in the Unite the Right rally were informed by Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding, by local schools’ Massive Resistance and by officials’ decisions to put up Confederate statues in local parks. Rally participants, whether local residents or not, were informed by Central Virginia’s history and chose Charlottesville because they felt safe there.
And as the city commemorates the second anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, panelists said residents and onlookers should take time to celebrate local African American history and culture.
“There are so many mixed stories that you get when you start to research the history of black Charlottesville,” Hudson said, discussing her desire to display the culture of local residents in everyday life.
Panelists also called for an examination of local institutions, such as UVa and Charlottesville City Schools, and how they treated current white supremacists and students of color.
Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, two organizers of the the 2017 Unite the Right rally, are alumni of UVa — Spencer received a Bachelor of Arts in music on May 20, 2001, and Kessler received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology on June 4, 2009.
“What was the UVa they occupied in the 1990s and 2000s?” Harold asked. “It was a UVa that was becoming increasingly brown, and so the seeds of this notion of warfare was planted then. It’s not to say that this was inevitable, but it is to say this is not an exception.”
Racism changes and evolves as social systems evolve, said Bryant, noting that while local schools may not be de facto segregated anymore, there are still disparities in white and black children’s admittance into gifted education programs. Similarly, she said, UVa did not feel accessible for many of her fellow CHS graduates.
And while many conversations after the tragic and chaotic 2017 rallies have focused on resistance to white supremacy, Bryant said she wanted local residents to take time to celebrate black culture without necessarily framing that work in opposition to neo-Nazi efforts. She said she wanted local residents to recognize how much African Americans have built their own culture while contributing to the broader American culture, citing as an example the work of the late author Toni Morrison.
“I’m really fascinated by how we can be so oppressed but so great at the same time. That fills me up,” she said.