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Disrupting narratives of destruction, filmmakers show Vinegar Hill is more than a community destroyed by urban renewal

Guest Writers: Jordy Yager and Lorenzo Dickerson – The story of Vinegar Hill, for many people, has become synonymous with destruction. But for nearly a century the African American neighborhood that was ultimately razed in 1965 thrived as the heart of economic, educational, spiritual and residential life in Charlottesville, VA.

For generations, Vinegar Hill held a piece of every local African American’s life. Five African American churches dotted the neighborhood’s landscape, along with the city’s only African American school, scores of benevolent organizations, restaurants, barber shops, funeral homes, grocery stores, insurance companies, taxi and ambulance services, a newspaper, and much more — all Black-owned.

Black and white image

Having grown up in Charlottesville and the surrounding Albemarle County, we questioned why Vinegar Hill’s narrative rested so firmly on the story of its Urban Renewal razing, and not the vibrancy of life that preceded it. So when VPM asked Maupintown Media for a film proposal, we knew we had to help set the record straight. 

With Raised/Razed we wanted the world to know how hundreds of families were raised in the tight-knit neighborhood, and how the interdependence of neighbors created something so much more than just a 20-acre tract of land.

We started by throwing our research arms out as wide as we possibly could. We digitized more than 400 pages of newspapers and clippings. We pored over five giant cardboard file boxes containing hundreds of pages of city records, reports and assessments. We dug through hundreds of yellowing photographs, old slides and family images. And we scoured the internet for existing scholarship, public histories and every bit of research to date. 

One of the most seminal and comprehensive records of Vinegar Hill is the 2005 book by James Saunders and Renae Shackelford entitled, Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia. The book is based on a tremendous amount of research and a series of over two-dozen oral histories conducted in 1980-1981 by University of Virginia students in a class Saunders was teaching at the time.

With these interviews students created priceless time capsules of Vinegar Hill as it existed in its prime. And while we were able to listen to some of the original cassettes and digitized copies of most of these interviews, many of the interviewees have passed away.

As storytellers we’re both driven to not just highlight history for history’s sake, which is important, but to also show how, and why, history is still relevant today. We want to hold the lens of history up to our present reality, to show us things we thought we knew but didn’t, and to reveal the ways we’ve been shaped by the unseen and invisible hands of time.

What if we could talk to some of these former students about their experience conducting the interviews in 1980-81? What if we could talk to family members of the interviewees, effectively putting multiple generations into conversation with one another, all talking about one place, one neighborhood, over time? 

Over the course of 2021 we interviewed 16 people for 2-3 hours at a time, sometimes multiple times. We talked with them in their homes, walked the streets of the old Vinegar Hill neighborhood, and sat with them at Jefferson School. They reminisced about the smells of collard greens and ham wafting through swinging front doors, the sounds of Duke Ellington crooning through record players, and groups of children ice skating over frozen pools at the bottom of the hill.

One of our first interviewees was Ivan Glasgow, who as a UVA student had interviewed five African American residents as part of Saunders’ class. He recalled sitting down with Sadie Mason, who lived on Commerce Street in Vinegar Hill, and being filled with disbelief as she told him her family didn’t receive any of the “relocation payment” the government promised her as part of its Urban Renewal project. 

“You didn’t get nothing?” he asked, incredulously. 

Ivan Glasgow

We learned first-hand that the Vinegar Hill most people knew as home was not the “slum” that the City, its Housing Authority, and their many white supporters contended. As we compiled more and more research, we created a timeline of events and saw clearly how these powerful government and business interests focused their justification for razing Vinegar Hill on a small handful of neighborhood rental properties that did not have indoor plumbing, adequate insulation or basic quality of life maintenance.

In his 1980 oral history interview, Dr. George Ferguson said that all of these ill-kept properties were actually owned by a white family — the estate of William D. Haden, the former mayor of Charlottesville who died in 1945. As we combed through city assessments of every neighborhood property, we found that not only were the vast majority of homes in Vinegar Hill owned by African Americans, but they also got the highest marks from assessors —“outstanding,” “best property,” “excellent,” they wrote.

Charlottesville Razed

With Raised/Razed, we wanted to set this record as straight as we could — trusting that future generations will expound even further, in much the same way we have stood on the shoulders of the giants before us. History, like life, is complex and complicated; it is nuanced in its many shades and perspectives, and no two people will ever tell it the same. We hope Raised/Razed treads that line thoughtfully, showing the subjectiveness of experiential realities while conveying a clearer factual representation of what happened, how it happened, and who it happened to.

With these facts in hand each of our interviewees inevitably spoke about reparations and what an honest reckoning with this history might look like. Everyone agreed, local educators need to teach the history of Vinegar Hill and all that it encompassed — from community self-sufficiency and mutual aid, to explicit and institutional racism. But more than that, they want to see a financial and economic accounting for the injustice of forcing 463 African Americans to leave a community that had been their generational lifeblood, and that effectively dismantled generations of wealth, property and standing in one fell swoop.

This need for reparations stretches far and wide because the story of Urban Renewal is not one just confined to Charlottesville. From 1949-1974 the federal Urban Renewal program displaced more than a million people in over 600 municipalities throughout the country. One of those communities was the Hayti neighborhood in Durham, NC, where York David Garrett, an African American pharmacist, owned and operated his family’s thriving pharmacy on Pettigrew Street.

Last year we met Garrett’s grandson, Michael Garrett, and his granddaughter, Yvonne Garrett Patterson, in Durham and spoke with them about the impact Urban Renewal has had on their family and the hundreds of other Black businesses that were forced to move as parts of the Hayti neighborhood were demolished. Now, Patterson is focused on introducing to the U.S. Congress a bill she penned entitled the U.S. Urban Renewal Promise Act, which would offer full-scale reparations to everyone impacted by the destruction of businesses and communities. 

Yvonne and Michael

Though everyone we spoke with for this film acknowledged that what was taken can never be replaced, the hope is that Raised/Razed can help push our national and local reparations conversations forward with a deeper understanding of how we got here and why. As Patterson said, “This is a reparations issue that we can get our arms around.”  

Lorenzo Dickerson and Jordy Yager are the producers of Raised/Razed.

Watch:
Tune in to VPM/PBS Thursday, May 12th at 9:00 pm. Visit vpm.org/raised for more information.