1863 - The black community of Vinegar Hill is built.
Until the 1960s, "Vinegar Hill" was a large African American neighborhood located in Charlottesville just west of the city's present-day Downtown Mall. The origins of the district's name have become obscured among varying legends and interpretations. Some accounts maintain that Irish immigrants who prospered in the area during the early nineteenth century called it Vinegar Hill after the location of an agrarian revolt in Ireland; others claim "vinegar" was a code word for moonshine used by bootleggers who operated on the Hill; another legend involves a keg of vinegar falling from a horse-drawn wagon, saturating the sloping road now known as West Main Street with its pungent smell. Regardless of its name's genesis, the area defined as "Vinegar Hill" became a focal point for black residential and social life following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and continued until the city's urban renewal project in the 1960s.
During the early twentieth century Charlottesville's African-American inhabitants made Vinegar Hill their own in many ways. Beginning in the 1920s, Vinegar Hill constituted the economic center for Charlottesville's black population. While segregation remained intact, black businesses in the area served black clientele or both the black and white communities. Despite barriers to education and employment, African Americans gained economic opportunities through a wide range of small businesses in the Vinegar Hill area. Though many rented their Vinegar Hill housing that often lacked running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity, residents lived and worked among their homes, schools, and churches in a close-knit community. Over 55 of the homes and businesses in Vinegar Hill were owned by African Americans.
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision in 1954 did not put an end to segregation in Charlottesville; rather, the Virginia General Assembly adopted Senator Harry Byrd's invidious "Massive Resistance" policy. Amidst the tension of continued segregation, a referendum was held on the question of activating a Housing Authority in Charlottesville, and the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) was established by a vote of 1,105 to 1,069. Newspapers listed advantages to the Housing Authority such as higher property values, better stores, wider streets, elimination of slums, and federal assistance of up to two-thirds of the net project cost, while the disadvantages given were few in comparison.
In 1960 the CRHA submitted an application to city council calling for redevelopment of the Vinegar Hill area and construction of public housing for relocating its inhabitants. The CRHA's goals included facilitating expansion of the downtown business district, improving traffic, and cutting off commercial flow from central to peripheral areas through revitalizing the Hill. These factors, combined with federal funding and a thinly veiled agenda of "slum cleansing" an area so close to reputable downtown businesses, ushered in the urban renewal project. By the mid-1960s Vinegar Hill was largely demolished, with twenty-nine businesses disrupted and over 600 people moved to public housing in Westhaven.
Twenty years after demolition, Vinegar Hill remained highly undeveloped. In 1985 the Omni Hotel opened its doors, and since that time several office buildings, businesses, and restaurants have developed in the area. There are few physical reminders of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, though its name remains on landmarks like the Vinegar Hill Theatre (opened in 1976) and the Vinegar Hill Shopping Center.
Today the area formerly known as Vinegar Hill constitutes roughly the triangular segment of central Charlottesville bordered by West Main Street on the South, Preston Avenue on the North, and Fourth Street on the West.
A small plaque located on a partial wall marking the entry to the Downtown Mall at Ridge McIntire Road and Main Street commemorates the once-thriving African American neighborhood.