Reclaiming Narratives of Liberation Through Space
In the Spring of 2016, I authored the petition to the Charlottesville City Council calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of Lee Park in downtown Charlottesville. This act alone jolted our city, and our decision to reckon with our history made us a battleground for White supremacists near and far. The violent attacks of August 11 and 12 came as a result of our attempt to rip off the bandaid, exposing the wound that deeply rooted racism has left behind. In 2017, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue and rename Lee Park, and has since been met with an ongoing lawsuit as the statue remains on its post in now Market Street Park.
The racism that is present in symbolism through our public spaces is very closely tied to the racism that causes our legal and education systems to be so inequitable. Charlottesville is gated with racist statues and historical landmarks that send a clear message to Black and Brown people that they do not belong; which explains why at the time of the Civil War, the Charlottesville area was 52% Black, and now Black people only make up less than 20% of the population. To pretend that racism was ushered in from some far away land during August of 2017 is to deny and overlook the fact that Charlottesville has a very long and violent history of urban renewal, gentrification, and racial profiling. This “very progressive” town that voted for Bernie in the primaries was once the home of a thriving and vibrant Black owned business district and community, Vinegar Hill. It was destroyed after being declared, blighted by local officials, and the residents were then pushed out of the middle of town and into public housing. This pattern of tearing down and pushing out has continued beyond the 1960s and into the present day practices of redevelopment. As Charlottesville now finds itself in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, the Westhaven community that the families from Vinegar Hill were forced into, is once again on the chopping block as the bordering areas are overcrowded with expensive student housing and overpriced real estate. Again, the most marginalized communities become the most disposable as those in positions of power figure things out.
Charlottesville remains racially and economically segregated by train tracks. Just as it was highlighted this past fall in the New York Times and ProPublica article, the decision to integrate schools in 1959 did not level the playing field. Resources remained disproportionately concentrated in predominantly white neighborhoods, where there were higher enrollments for white students. During the time of integration, the school district lines were redrawn as a way of keeping segregation at the forefront of the divisions practices, and the gifted program was created. This “pull out” program was created to ensure an ongoing and well-kept divide between white and Black students in the Charlottesville area public schools. This generational divide has brought Charlottesville Schools to a place of extremely low pass rates of standardized testing for students of color and low-income students and essentially illiteracy for many Black and Brown elementary schoolers who never end up catching up later in their academic careers. The miseducation of students of color is a contributing factor in the wealth gap that exists in Charlottesville, pushing so many Black and Brown students into poverty and/or the industrial prison system. All of these things are connected. We cannot discuss one of these issues without discussing all of them.
Following a racist threat sent to Black and Brown students of Charlottesville High School in March of 2019, the Black Student Union (founded in 2015) decided to call attention to the ways in which the racist narrative of the city’s confederate monuments are closely tied to all forms of institutionalized racism in the city and the region as a whole. Through organizing the #racialjusticewalkout and launching a media campaign, we proposed 10 demands to the Charlottesville City School Board.
Charlottesville High School Black Student Union Leads Walkout for Racial Justice
Charlottesville, VA -- The Charlottesville High School Black Student Union is leading a Walkout for Racial Justice and Equity this Monday, March 25th, at noon, beginning at Charlottesville High School. In the wake of the recent school closings due to threats of racial violence that targeted Black and Brown students, the students of Charlottesville High School are calling on the Charlottesville City Schools to address racism in all its forms.
We held our walkout in McIntire park, the park named after Paul Gooloe McIntire, which was dedicated to him as a whites only space (just like Lee Park) but was later integrated. Paul Goodloe McIntire is the Charlottesville native and philanthropist that donated Lee Park to the city as a gift. McIntire Park’s last important event that took place there was a gathering of Nazis and White supremacists on August 12th, 2017. With hundreds of students, parents, and community members walking out at noon on March 25th, we reclaimed the space while adding a narrative of liberation to the space which is widely known for the oppressive and violent acts of the Unite the Right rally.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
BSU Full statement:
Subject: Charlottesville Students Walk Out for Racial Justice - Monday 3/25 @ noon
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Zyahna Bryant and Althea Laughon-Worrell
Student leaders are calling attention to the following demands:
Charlottesville City Schools denounce and call out RACISM against Black and Brown students.
African American History class to hold the same weight as an honors history course, not an elective.
The hiring of more Black teachers, especially in CORE CLASS honors, AP, honors and DE studies.
Extended resources, in addition to AVID, for future Black and Brown first generation college students.
Discipline Reform - End the excessive suspending and policing of Black middle and high school students by creating a diverse governing board of staff, students, and parents to oversee equitable and effective discipline.
Test EVERY student for Quest.
Apply Mental Health practices that are culturally relevant and racially aware.
A high standard for programming associated with Black History. No one should have the opportunity to opt out of Black History.
Racial bias and cultural sensitivity training for all School Resource Officers
Implement the same locked door and buzzer system currently used by the elementary schools at Walker, Buford, and Charlottesville High School, to ensure the safety of the student body as a whole and the staff.
The Black Student Union’s demands have been endorsed by:
Charlottesville area chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America
Charlottesville-area Immigrant Resource and Advocacy Coalition
Charlottesville High School Amnesty International
Dr. Wes Bellamy, Councilman
Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County
Legal Aid Justice Center
Charlottesville-Albemarle Chapter of the NAACP
Restoration Village Arts
Showing Up for Racial Justice - Charlottesville
The Civil Rights Club at the University Mary Washington
University of Virginia Black Law Students Association
University of Virginia Black Student Alliance
University of Virginia Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society
University of Virginia Students United
Virginia Student Power Network
Monument Lab Youth Fellow
Zyahna Bryant is a senior at Charlottesville High School, in Charlottesville, VA. As a freshman, Bryant wrote the petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue and rename Lee Park in Charlottesville. Her petition gained national attention and sparked public debate and protests, ultimately resulting in the renaming of the park and grassroots organizing that led to the election of Charlottesville’s first Black Female Mayor in the 2017 City Council election. As a part of her fellowship, Bryant will continue her work in Charlottesville, engaging stories of liberation and social justice.