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In 1965, the city of Charlottesville demolished a thriving black neighborhood

The razing of Vinegar Hill displaced families and dissolved the community

On a Saturday morning in 1965, movers came to the Johnson home. Kathy Johnson and her three-year-old sister listened at the breakfast table, as their mother, Elsie, gave the movers instructions. The family was heartbroken. They didn’t want to leave their modest, two-story clapboard home, which often smelled of Elsie’s famous dinner rolls. But the house was slated to be bulldozed by the city of Charlottesville, as were 139 other black families’ homes, 30 black-owned businesses, and a church in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. This “urban renewal project” would be done in the name of “progress.”

Looking east on Main Street from the base of Vinegar Hill, 1930s. (Charlottesville DTM)

Looking east on Main Street from the base of Vinegar Hill, 1930s. (Charlottesville DTM)

But as Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a research psychiatrist studying the effect of so-called urban renewal projects on black communities, would later ask, “Progress for whom?” It certainly wasn’t for residents of Charlottesville’s largest black neighborhood, or any of the other more than 800 black communities that had already been displaced by 1962.

Stories differ on how Vinegar Hill got its name. Some suggest that it originated from the time when a vinegar keg fell off a horse cart, leaving behind a pungent odor. Former slaves began settling there after the Civil War, hopeful that home ownership would guarantee progress for them and their families. During Jim Crow years, the neighborhood burgeoned into a bustling community of black business owners serving black clients. It was, according to the documentary on the neighborhood, That World is Gone, a hub for Charlottesville’s black social life. There was a school, insurance agencies, restaurants, clothing and drug stores, a barber shop, a fish market, a tailor, and a popular jazz nightclub, among many other venues. One resident would later remark that the neighborhood wasn’t “terribly beautiful, but those were good sturdy businesses.”

Looking east on Main Street from the base of Vinegar Hill, 1930s. (Charlottesville DTM)

In 1954, Charlottesville was growing. Vinegar Hill’s land was valuable. Comprising about 20 acres, the neighborhood fell between the downtown shopping district and the University of Virginia’s campus — the city’s crown jewels. The city council passed a measure that allowed “unsanitary and unsafe” houses to be taken over by a newly established housing authority. Newspaper articles ran arguing that demolishing Vinegar Hill would make way for better shops and apartments, and wider streets. In 1964, it was announced that the entire neighborhood would be razed.

Many of the Vinegar Hill residents were blocked from voting on their own homes destruction because of a hefty poll tax. A newspaper from the time read, “Vinegar Hill is related closely with the rest of the downtown Charlottesville area which seriously needs room for expansion.” Kathy’s father met with residents to try to halt the razing, but the people he talked to seemed too worn out, or they just didn’t know how to fight city hall. In 1965, bulldozers rumbled down the street, leveling homes into piles of rubble. It looked like the aftermath of a tornado.

The federal government had rules about this though, so the city of Charlottesville had to be careful. They were required to provide public housing for those who had been displaced if the residents were in need. But one displaced resident recalled that by 1985, the public housing had entirely deteriorated. And as the film points out, swapping a privately owned stand-alone house for a unit in a multi-family public housing complex is not a fair trade.

The trauma of losing their community and homes was enormous and the financial toll would follow them for the rest of their lives. As Mindy Thomas Fullilove wrote in the Journal of Urban Health, such relocations “caused a profound shift in the political and social engagement of the African American community.” By dismantling their homes, businesses, and gathering places, the city of Charlottesville left black families isolated and alienated. Social and political institutions withered. Dispersed, they could not organize in their interests or support one another on a wider scale.

When looked at from this perspective, “urban renewal projects” are more palatable branding for what is really the seizure of black-owned property and the hamstringing of black communities. Kathy Johnson reported that her friends and siblings moved away from Charlottesville. “There are just no opportunities for African American people,” she said. As James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine wrote in their book, Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia, Vinegar Hill marked “an era of black prosperity that neither hitherto nor henceforth has been achieved by the black citizens of Charlottesville.”

Despite all the talk about better stores and new apartment buildings, after Vinegar Hill was demolished, the land remained empty for years. The children who lived there would visit the empty lots where their houses used to be. “It was the eeriest,” one said. Eventually, much of the property would become parking lots. While many argued that that the real purpose of razing Vinegar Hill was to free the flow of traffic between the downtown mall and UVA, the city’s failure to do anything meaningful with the land makes it hard not to see the move as the deliberate disintegration of a thriving black community.


#BlackPower #1960s #WhiteSupremacy

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