I graduated from University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1986, so I felt a special connection to the recent horrific events in Charlottesville. As a student in the 1980’s, I remember there being racial tension. There were few minorities and they stuck together in solidarity — I didn’t really understand at the time just how isolated they must have felt and why they felt a need for a tight knit community. I remember there being what felt like a somewhat half-hearted attempt at embracing diversity when a new group was formed by students called STARS (Students Together Against Racism and Sexism) which trying to encourage open conversations about racism and sexism. I remember hearing some students ridicule and express disgust at the concept. I don’t think the group lasted long or had much of an impact. I’m regret to admit that I didn’t join.
I was aware that UVa and Thomas Jefferson, its founder, had a spotty history with slavery, racism and discrimination. A state school, they admitted Gregory Swanson as the first black student admitted to a historically white public institution of higher education in Virginia in 1950. However, this was only after his winning a case in federal court and gaining admission to the University of Virginia. However, it was not fully integrated until the 1960’s.
Restrictions on admission of women were only lifted in 1969, however they were limited to a cap of 35% of the student body. It was only after another federal lawsuit brought by ACLU was won, that UVa established a plan to admit students without regard to sex by 1972.
I enjoyed my 4 years in Charlottesville, and valued the education I received there. However, when the time came to choose where I would like to settle for my post-graduation life, I told my friends and family that I could never live south of the Mason-Dixon line. The racial divide and tension I experienced there was just not an environment I wanted to live in.
Through the years, I retained my connection with and pride in my educational experience at UVa. I have been at various times disappointed and heartened at various points over the years as there have been various scandals and incidents. I have returned over the years for reunions and visits. I was most heartened last year when I returned for my 30th reunion to see the University and Charlottesville making great strides to expose and come to grips with its ties to slavery.
They are now facing the University historical ties to slavery and accepting it even in its ugliness. They have been investing energy in uncovering and documenting the history of slaves that served the earliest students and professors. They named a new dorm after freed slaves. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/06/24/u-va-acknowledges-its-slave-history/?utm_term=.5b7b45d76364
I cannot presume to know how this is perceived by the African-American community at the University or in town. I’m sure this effort is perceived as a lot too little and a lot too late. But I was encouraged at the difference in tone from that STAR effort back in the early 1980’s when I was a first year student there. This really feels sincere and sustainable.
When I heard that the City of Charlottesville had voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee and that they’d renamed the park to Emancipation Park, I was doubly cheered. I had heard about the KKK rally early this summer and knew that there were concerns at the University and in Charlottesville about the “Unite the Right” rally. I read the emails from Theresa Sullivan, President of the University, calling on students to try to refrain from going to the area of the rally and to avoid direct confrontation due to the high risk of violence. I saw the plans for alternate gatherings on Saturday Aug 12 in opposition to racism away from the rally point at the statue. It made sense to me at the time.
However, when I saw the news Friday night with the torches and violence on the Lawn on grounds, I knew the monsters who’d come to town to attend the rally on Saturday were looking to incite violence. I was proud to see the brave students quietly standing their ground holding their banner declaring “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy”. I monitored the rally events from early Saturday when I saw the first news reports that things were not going well and was watching the events in real-time from afar.
I had to text my African-American friend from first year who I’d seen for the first time in 30 years at our reunion who now works at the University – to make sure she was safe (she was) and let her know I was there in spirit in protest to the hatred we were witnessing. I should have stopped watching the repetitive news coverage, but I just was so outraged and sad I couldn’t tear myself away.
On Sunday, I attended a #DefendCville rally in Northampton, MA on Sunday evening. Ran into my friend Victoria from the Women’s March there, with whom I’ve also attended Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey Town Halls.
Although sad that we needed to be there, it was great to see so many different people of all races, ages and genders together in solidarity against hate and with persistent determination to continue the resistance.
The speakers called on us all to acknowledge that we had to look at our own communities and see that we were not immune to the same kind of racism that we witnessed so blatantly in Charlottesville although it may be more subtle here in the “liberal bastion” of Massachusetts. It felt good to be together to mourn and to gather strength from community.
As I continue to try to process Charlottesville and the normalization of white suprematism and the rising tides of hateful speech and actions in our country, and the appalling bland response from Donald Trump. I literally shouted out in anger when I heard his words “violence on many sides, many sides” and “cherish our history”.
It calls to mind his disrespect and complete lack of understanding of our actual history which we are supposed to be “cherishing” remember! It makes me think of my father and his two brothers who fought Nazi’s and fascism in World War II. Only two of them returned. The other is buried in a graveyard in France as he was shot down in a bombing raid near Vienna, Austria.
My dad, still active at 95, joined the Women’s March in large part due to his sense of deja vu. He vividly remembers the pattern of hate he saw leading up to the Nazi takeover in his youth. When interviewed at the January 21st march in Clemson, SC he expressed those fears to a reporter.
Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not PIE.
Fostering hate and casting blame on the “other” as the source of what are actually common problems shared by the majority serves to divide our country. It allows our leaders to take the opportunity to examine and solve the REAL underlying sources of these issues. It actually props up the powerful but does nothing to actually help those suffering. In reality, the new oligarchs in the US do not want us to be united in fighting for the middle class and working poor. They want us all fighting each other so that we are not united in the fight to take control back from them.
I can only hope that this horrific incident will help shift the tide so that we don’t allow ourselves to continue to be divided but this hateful rhetoric from Donald Trump and the alt-right. I hope that those who have been sucked into believing the lies of his rhetoric can now see him more clearly and agree that this approach is both vile and evil and wrong-headed so that is so that we can re-unite and find true common ground to improve conditions for ALL OF US!