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Five years after Unite the Right, Charlottesville grapples with its identity

People line up for a free throw
Players line up as one person shoots a free throw at Tonsler Park in Charlottesville. A weekly basketball league at the park has become a staple for area residents. (Photos: Zack Wajsgras/For VPM News)

Editor’s note: This story contains a racial slur within a quotation.

Wes Bellamy recently posted a photo of himself after a run — fist raised — on a patch of dried grass in Emancipation Park where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood.

Bellamy served on City Council from 2016 to 2019 and resolved to see the city’s Lee statue removed. 

A white supremacist and University of Virginia alum named Jason Kessler cast Bellamy as an anti-white racist, and galvanized white nationalist groups online to organize in the city in August 2017.

Five years after the Unite the Right rally, Bellamy looks back with a sense of awe.

“I'm not going to say that racism is dead, and we still don't have to address white supremacy in Charlottesville,” he said. “But the air is not as thick as it was in 2015, ’16, ’17. And people are a lot more empowered and emboldened. People are a lot more equipped to be able to deal with difficult situations.”

Bellamy said there’s been significant improvement in the city since the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 forced Charlottesville to examine its own history of racism and inequality. Now, he points to new grant opportunities for minority business owners, dedicated funding in the budget for equity measures and much-needed upgrades to the city’s public housing.

“We put $2.5 million into the affordable housing fund for us to get those projects started,” he said. “And now those projects are off the ground, and very soon people will be moving in [to] them. So, to me, that's a win.”

Bellamy added there’s more diversity in city leadership and more cultural opportunities for Black residents to access.

“I look at the Tonsler basketball league, we just had 1,100 people at Tonsler Park on Saturday for our basketball game,” he said. “You can't tell me our community isn't making strides, because we are.”

Black culture in Charlottesville

At Tonsler Park last Thursday, the energy was frenetic but focused. Hip-hop rumbled through the speakers as the crowd cheered for basketball players in matching jerseys sprinting up and down the newly resurfaced court. The summer league began in 2010 under the name Banks College Basketball Association. Bellamy took over and rebranded the league this year.

Long-time resident Chris Johnson commented on the recent improvements to the park.

“We got the waterparks, the bathrooms. You know, we got the hoops right here. They put better baskets [in], not the old school, double rims that cut your hands,” Johnson said. “We’ve got good rims, good courts.”

Johnson said it’s become a center for the community, where people feel they are connected.

Harold Folley is another lifelong Charlottesville resident and an organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. He said while the gatherings at Tonsler Park are an improvement, Charlottesville will never be home to the thriving Black community that existed long before the “Summer of Hate,” a phrase some use to describe the events of 2017.

“It doesn't have a Black culture,” Folley said about the city. “The Black culture got dismantled from urban renewal.”

In the 1960s, Charlottesville’s historically Black neighborhood, Vinegar Hill, was a casualty of the city’s redevelopment plans. Black families were displaced and Black business owners were forced out of the flourishing commercial hub next to what’s now the Downtown Mall.

“When Vinegar Hill was here, all the money was spent in Vinegar Hill,” he said. “So, it generated business and generated wealth.”

When the city bulldozed the Black-driven local economy, it also dispersed a tight-knit community with shared experiences. 

“Black folks never had an opportunity to really have a conversation with themselves about what's the next step after Vinegar Hill,” Folley said. “And white people never had the courage to repair the damage.

“Now they're trying to change it, and it's almost too late,” he said. 

Friendship Court Charlottesville
The reimagination of Friendship Court, a centrally-located development in Charlottesville, aims to address housing problems in the city.

Charlottesville’s unaffordable housing

A lack of affordable housing has emerged during the past five years as one of the key reasons for inequity in the city. 

“You can look right in front of you, you'll see new developments within less than 500 yards of predominantly Black neighborhoods that's basically in shambles,” said Shad Gill, another lifelong resident of Charlottesville.

He knows the struggle from experience.

“I recently bought a house out in Fluvanna County within the last two years, because when I was ready to purchase my home, there was nothing that was within my range [in Charlottesville] that I could afford,” he said.

A 2020 study by the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition found between 2000 and 2018, rent in the area rose by 88%. During that time, the median white household increased its income by 103%, while the household income for Black residents increased by 17%. 

“We're talking about thousands of homes. And we need them yesterday,” said Lyle Solla-Yates, chairperson of the Charlottesville Planning Commission. “And we don't have enough money to do that. We cannot fill the hole.”

The city approved an affordable housing plan in early 2021, with racial equity as one of its guiding principles.

“We looked at, well, what can we do? And that came to about $10 million a year. So, City Council has committed to do that. And we've been doing that. And it's helping. It is making a difference. And it is beginning to add up,” Solla-Yates said.

The plan also recommends ditching single-family zoning — which has long been used to reinforce racial segregation — to allow for the construction of townhouses and apartments. A group of anonymous Charlottesville property owners sued to stop the city’s plans and proposed zoning changes.

‘Know your place’

Back at Tonsler Park, Tanesha Hudson, another lifelong Charlottesville resident, said housing is only one of the problems that Charlottesville residents face.

Hudson, who spends her free time making films and filing public records requests to hold city leaders accountable, said little has changed in Charlottesville during the past five years. Meanwhile, she’s watched Black leaders, who brought much-needed diversity to City Hall, come and go.

“I'm over it,” she said. “I'm over the lies. I'm over the deception. I'm over the corruption. I'm over Black people being always the ones thrown on the stake and burned and white people landing on their feet.”

In 2018, amid fallout from the police department’s handling of the Unite the Right rally, Charlottesville hired its first Black, female police chief, RaShall Brackney — a nationally-recognized expert in community policing. She was fired last fall; the city manager cited a need for new leadership in the department.

Brackney has since sued the city for wrongful termination.

Also in 2018, the city elected its first Black, female mayor, Nikuyah Walker, who previously served on council. But Walker decided not to run for re-election, citing infighting and racism in city government.

City Council also voted not to renew the contract of former Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones in December 2018. Tarron Richardson, who next held the city manager position, resigned in 2020, while hinting at a difficult work environment.

Hudson said the departures are further examples of white people in the city telling Black people to “know your place.”

“This is what the ‘Summer of Hate’ was about, white people telling an educated and well-groomed leader, whether it's male or female, ‘I don't care how smart you are, you still just an educated Negro, and you don't have a place in a city like Charlottesville,’” she said.

Meanwhile, Hudson pointed to a white city IT employee who took leave from work and entered the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Charlottesville’s interim city manager, Michael Rogers, announced last week that the employee would keep his job.

Hudson also took exception with Bellamy’s characterization of the city being on the road to reform.

“Wes can't speak for me,” Hudson said. “Because he's not from here. He didn't have to live here. His family didn't have to struggle to maintain living here and surviving here. So, he can't speak for Charlottesville. Charlottesville has to speak for Charlottesville.”