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Charlottesville's religious, Black communities push to address inequities highlighted by violence

Rev. Brenda Brown Grooms works with other religious leaders on social justice in Charlottesville. (Scott Tong/Here & Now)
Rev. Brenda Brown Grooms works with other religious leaders on social justice in Charlottesville. (Scott Tong/Here & Now)

It’s been five years since what people in Charlottesville, Va., call “the Summer of Hate” — referring to the white nationalist rally and violence that followed. To many, it spurred a renewed conversation on race in the city.

On the night of Aug. 11, 2017, roughly 250 white supremacists carried lit torches and confronted students on the University of Virginia campus. The next morning, the white nationalists gathered at a downtown park where they met protesters opposing them. In the violence that followed, a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others.

The marchers have long left, but the events have prompted Charlottesville residents to examine their city’s own legacy of white supremacy.

“The thing that enraged me the most about Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 was the number of well-meaning white people who, in tears said, ‘This is not who we are,’” says Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms. “This is exactly what we are. Where the heck have you been?”

Brown-Grooms is co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community, which works to feed the poor.

“Charlottesville, for all its loveliness and all its progressiveness, is essentially a feudal state,” she says. “There is a landed gentry. And there are serfs who work the land. It might be 2022, but that is essentially the same topography, if you will.”

Brown-Grooms remembers the day of the Unite the Right rally vividly: She was at the park where the clashes began.

“I was at the Methodist First United Methodist building which was headquartered right across from the park,” Brown-Grooms says. “And I was on the prayer detail. We were taking in people who were being pepper sprayed and assaulted, and they would come in for first aid and they’d come for prayer or just for a debriefing or just to catch their breath.”

When the crowds cleared and the city tried to make sense of the tragedy, Brown-Grooms couldn’t stop thinking and talking about inequalities that have a long tail in the history of the South and still exist today.

On most days she is at her church giving away food, feeding at least 300 people a week alongside volunteers such as Phyllis Hazekamp.

“We’re here four days a week, and we hate to throw food away,” Hazekemp says. “So anybody that needs food, it doesn’t matter: your status, your race, your nationality. If you need to eat, come see us at New Beginnings Christian Community.”

Charlottesville has a population of 45,000 people — 70% white and 19% Black, according to the 2020 census.

Nearly a quarter of Charlottesville’s population lives in poverty. The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, finds that Charlottesville has higher economic inequality than the entire state of Virginia and the U.S.

“Many of our people are concerned with surviving day to day, and so they leave a lot of issues, hot button issues, for those of us whom they consider to be their mouthpieces and who have actually the time and energy to address those,” Brown-Grooms says.

Jalane Schmidt, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia

and activist who has worked to remove Confederate statues across the city, has also spoken out against racial inequality in the city.

“At the time of the Civil War, over half of the population locally was enslaved. 52% of the population, about 14,000 people. And then another 2% were free Blacks. So 54% of the population was African-American,” says Schmidt. “You just have to see that these statues, these Confederate statues are pieces of propaganda.”

As Schmidt puts it, the statues signify that white people are still in charge. What followed the Civil War was a long history of disenfranchisement, segregation and intimidation under Jim Crow.

“In 1898, we had a lynching. A man was lynched, a Black man. The sheriff and the police chief were at the lynching,” Schmidt says. “That just kind of gives you any indication of just how bad things were. No one was ever prosecuted.”

In the 20th century, Charlottesville’s Black residents were repeatedly pushed out of their neighborhoods, Schmidt says. One of those neighborhoods called Vinegar Hill was filled with Black professionals.

City residents voted to bulldoze Vinegar Hill in the 1960s. At the time, most Black residents could not vote due to poll taxes and other disenfranchising measures.

“It pushed people who had formerly been homeowners into public housing where they were renters. Homeownership is most families’ primary wealth builder,” Schmidt says. “This happened in living memory. There are a lot of older Black residents who remember their homes.”

Housing is just one axis of inequality. As Schmidt sees it, the task going forward is not just recognize housing inequality in marginalized communities but to fix the problem.

One solution is to allow more density and affordable duplexes, not just single-family homes in neighborhoods. But it’s a tough sell to the wealthy class, she says.

“It amazes me because you look at these people’s Instagram accounts of where they go on vacation and you know they’re in Florence or they’re in Paris, London,” Schmidt says. “There’s commercial space on the street level and cafes and then people living above. And why is this charming when it’s elsewhere? But can’t have that here.”

This reality of inequality is what Rev. Brown-Grooms means when she asks “Where the heck have you been?” in response to some resident’s confusion over white supremacy in the city.

“We don’t, we may not say it out loud, but many Black and Brown people ask themselves: ‘What’s wrong with white people? Are they human?’ We ask that question. It’s not an academic question, it’s a real question,” Brown-Grooms says. “But it’s hard. Love and stuff is hard work. How do we do it? How do we manage it?”

In the church’s sanctuary, a big sign reads: “Relationship, not Religion.” One relationship that Brown-Grooms says has deepened since the August 2017 Unite the Right rally is among faith leaders.

“What has come out of August 11 and 12, 2017, is that many of us who had absolutely no relationships before have relationships,” Brown-Grooms says. “It’s out of those relationships that we have work and we continue to work and we’ll be able to work some more out of the bedrock of relationship, which is what’s wrong with this country.”

To her, the crisis of five years ago creates an opportunity today.

Brown-Grooms says one way to push forward is to speak collectively through the interfaith Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

“We begin to say: ‘Yep, that’s unequal,’” she says. “I’ve got to be willing to give up the comfort of having all the food and let somebody else have it.”

These tough questions aren’t unique to Charlottesville: They’re being asked across he American South as communities battle over statues, history and how they connect to inequities today. Friday night, interfaith leaders will hold a vigil in Charlottesville to remember what happened five years ago and to pray for whatever may come next. As for Brown-Grooms, she’s ready to bring it:

“There’s something I call cosmic poker. The way God plays poker. Well, the way God plays poker is he asks us to bet everything on love. And I do. I bet everything on love. Do you know why? Because I can,” she says. “I might suffer. It may look like I lost [everything], but actually I cannot lose. Not with love. Does that mean I won’t smack you? It does not. But I will figure out how to love you. I will tell you I am about to smack you upside your head because you have gotten on my very last nerve. Well, I love your brother.”

James Perkins Mastromarino and Jorgelina Manna-Rea produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Welch also adapted it for the web.

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