Can exposing Americans to its savage, racist history save Charlottesville? | Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
After the painful anniversary, I attended a series that educates participants about our town’s bleak history. It hurts to look at the past, but we must if we hope to ever be free
On 12 August of this year, my town of Charlottesville, Virginia, reluctantly commemorated the first anniversary of a deadly “Unite the Right” rally. We woke recalling last summer, when throngs of white nationalists raged here, spilling from Court Square past places where we had eaten birthday dinners or lay in yogic shavasana. For this dark observance, the new governor sent 1,000 riot police to blockade downtown like an apartheid of grief. We passed police checkpoints to file on to Fourth Street, to scrawl chalk hymns on the pavement near the place where Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others were battered. All year long, at home, at work, some of us have struggled to reconcile that racist display with what we find lovely about our town.
Two days after that painful anniversary, I attended a public event called Signs of Change, the first in a series that aims to educate participants about our town’s bleak racial history and encourage reflection through artmaking. Part of a national initiative called For Freedom: 50 States, Charlottesville’s Signs was largely designed by the Fralin, a museum which sits on the University of Virginia’s immaculate grounds. Museum educators such as Lisa Jervack chose to focus on seminal events that contorted Charlottesville’s African American communities, including the demolition of Vinegar Hill. “We hoped participants would come away shocked, with their eyes opened,” Jervack said.