Course Unites Students, Community Members in Study of Local Racial History

February 19, 2010 — "University of Virginia History: Race and Repair" is not your typical college course.

To start with, half of the students do not actually attend U.Va.; they are members of the Charlottesville community. Rather than meeting on Grounds, the class meets at the Quality Community Council building near the Downtown Mall. Instead of lectures, the course focuses heavily on discussion, recognizing the value of each class member's personal anecdotes.

"Race and Repair" is the result of the collaboration of the University Community Action for Racial Equity and Charlottesville's Quality Community Council. UCARE was established in 2007 after the Virginia General Assembly issued a statement expressing regret for the institution of slavery and calling for reconciliation among Virginians. Its goals are to "draw connections between present-day racial disparities and the significant role that the University played in creating them, due to its institutional support for slavery and racial segregation and discrimination."

Charlottesville's Quality Community Council is a citizen-driven community coalition created in 1999 to improve the quality of life in Charlottesville's most challenged neighborhoods. The QCC also regularly offers educational programs to community members through its "People's College" program.

UCARE member and U.Va. professor Phyllis Leffler expressed interest in developing a University course on local racial history, and approached fellow University professor Frank Dukes about developing the course together. Dukes and Leffler then asked Karen Waters (whom Leffler had partnered with before) to join as the third course facilitator, and "University of Virginia History: Race and Repair" was born.

Karen Waters is the executive director of the Quality Community Council and a U.Va. alumna. Dukes is the director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation, a faculty member in U.Va.'s architecture school, and is the project director of the UCARE initiative. Leffler is a history professor with a specific interest in the 20th-century history of U.Va. as well as the documentation of oral history.

All three are deeply invested in the state of race relations in Charlottesville, and donated their time to turn this course into reality.

The class focuses on the history of U.Va. and Charlottesville as well as current and ongoing racial relations and conflicts within the community. The beginning of the semester was spent reviewing local racial history, beginning with slavery. The second part has a more modern focus.

While uncovering the more recent history of Charlottesville, class members will be able to weave their own experiences into class dialogue.

The weekly sessions are discussion-based, and each class member is expected to keep a journal detailing each week's readings and class conversation. At the end of the semester, the class will split into groups to work on final projects. These group collaborations will aim to disseminate and analyze the history uncovered and discussed in the class. What form these final assignments will take has yet to be determined, Leffler said.

The 25-student enrollment of "Race and Repair" is roughly comprised of half community members and half University students. The ages range from 18 to 70.

Waters opened a recent class with a hearty "Welcome!" After a brief introduction, the class screened two YouTube videos of pioneering African-American students at U.Va.

The class eagerly jumped into a discussion about the struggles that the pioneers faced.  Many commented on the bravery of these students and the incredible hardships that they had to endure, and several class members suggested that similar struggles might still exist today.

The speaker for the day, Theresa Walker Price, a longstanding Charlottesville resident, presented a firsthand account of University life during the tumultuous end of segregation at U.Va.

While some class members struggled to cope with the hardships of the past, Dukes asked, "What can be done to make it right?"

Oladoyin Onawoie, a first-year student from Virginia Beach, said that being black at U.Va. can be a "lonely experience," but added that "Race and Repair" offers a forum to come "together with the desire to learn more and see what type of progress can be made, and that's very inspirational."

Another class member said she was discouraged by the race situation in Charlottesville. "Am I hopeless?" she asks the class. "Sometimes. But I'm here."

Fourth-year student Poorna Phaltankar said that the class has been an eye-opening experience.

"There's so much at the University that we walk by every day and don't even consider," he said. Learning alongside community members is "one of my only ways of escaping the U.Va. thought bubble."

— By Katie Andrew