Behind UVA’s Violent Arrest, A Racist Past In Charlottesville

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I learned to swim in the Charlottesville, Virginia, public schools. My teacher was a giant, gregarious man named Mr. Byers of whom I was more than a little intimidated and a lot in awe. I can still remember the firm but caring way he comforted us as we watched the Challenger explosion live on a small television in his poolside office. In his main job as a lifeguard, Mr. Byers had demonstrated the same care; he had been struck by lightning on multiple occasions while trying to get swimmers out of pools during storms. Yet in the 1970s and 80s Charlottesville, in which both he and I lived, there were many swimming pools to which Mr. Byers, who was African-American, was not allowed or welcome.

The recent beating of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson by police and agents of Charlottesville’s ABC liquor authority has been rightly connected to many other contemporary incidents, and to the #BlackLivesMatter community and debate more broadly. Yet just as important for contextualizing and understanding the Johnson beating are Charlottesville’s specific and, in some ways unique, histories of race and segregation.

Of course, every community in the Jim Crow South was defined by many such histories. But in Charlottesville, they extended with special clarity and force well into the Civil Rights era. The Charlottesville public schools were among the last to desegregate in the United States, with the Lane and Venable elementary schools being shut down for five months in the fall of 1958 rather than admit 12 African-American schoolchildren, and the rest of the city’s schools staying segregated until September of the following year. As documented in historian Dallas Crow’s 1971 thesis, Desegregation of Charlottesville, Virginia, Public Schools, 1954-1969: A Case Study, the slow, partial, and far too often painful desegregation process went on for another decade.

Moreover, both the University of Virginia and its students were involved in the city’s parallel and even more overt struggles over communal desegregation. In February 1961, a group of 29 students and community members, white and black, attempted to buy tickets to view a film at the University Theater. After 15 whites successfully bought tickets, the first group of four black customers, including the university’s first African-American graduate student Virginius Thornton, were refused entry, as the theater did not have segregated facilities. The event sparked the city’s first prominent protest against segregation, one that would be followed by many more such controversies and responses.

Even more violent was the response to one of the city’s first restaurant sit-ins, at local favorite Buddy’s, on Memorial Day weekend in 1963. The first mixed-race group of protesters who tried to get service at Buddy’s were ignored; the following day, the second were confronted with violent resistance, with an African-American minister slapped by two whites, and UVA faculty member and civil rights historian Paul Gaston punched in the face when he tried to phone for help. Buddy’s would remain segregated until the Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964, when the restaurant closed rather than serve African-American patrons.

A century and a half before Virginius Thornton became UVA’s first black grad student, Mr. Jefferson’s University was constructed by slave labor, a hidden history that only recently has begun to be featured on some of the university’s tours and promotional materials. Yet we do not have to travel to the slave South of the antebellum era to find histories of racial division and violence in either Charlottesville or its university: they are part of every period and every place, including, as we have seen far too clearly in recent days, the bars on the Corner in our own 21st century moment.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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