'Race and Repair' Class Unites Students, Community Members to Revisit Local History

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

April 29, 2010 — Roughly a dozen community members joined a similar number of University of Virginia students this spring for a course on "University of Virginia History: Race and Repair," in partnership with the local Quality Community Council's People's College program. 

The course, which explored the history of U.Va. and Charlottesville with a special emphasis on issues of race, was co-taught by U.Va. faculty members Frank Dukes and Phyllis Leffler, who volunteered their time, along with the council's executive director Karen Waters.

The class was also supported by the University Community Action for Racial Equity, a group established in 2007 after the Virginia General Assembly issued a statement expressing regret for the institution of slavery and calling for reconciliation among Virginians.

"We started this class looking at the danger of a single story," Waters said. "We recognize that there are many, many stories," and that sharing stories from all sides of a painful history like racial segregation is a prerequisite for reconciliation.

On Wednesday evening, the class offered a public presentation of their four final projects. Nearly 100 people, both students and community members comprising a wide range of ages, showed up for the two-hour affair at Random Row Books on West Main Street. The location between downtown Charlottesville and Grounds echoed the class' emphasis on bringing together students and the surrounding community.

The class had divided into four groups for final research projects. The four final projects examined the history of labor at U.Va. over the past 20 years, the West Main Street corridor, the Vietnam Era and Madison House.

The Vietnam Era project looked at the ways "race relations and class divisions" affected the anti-war protests and activism of the 1967-74 era. The students and community members in the group studied newspaper accounts, images and statistics and conducted interviews with several alumni who were students at the time, along with members of the local black community. 

To "complicate" the local history of the era, the group looked at events from three perspectives: U.Va. students, the Charlottesville community at large, and the local African-American community. The group's final report was presented by all four of the students who worked on the project: Kara Chisholm, Lauren Dart, Emily Draper and Poorna Phaltankar. (Group member Jennifer O'Connor watched from the audience.)

As the students explained, the formerly all-white-male student body was undergoing major demographic shifts during the Vietnam era; the College of Arts & Sciences had been recently desegregated in 1962, and women were first admitted in 1970. 

Former student activist Frank Blechman reported that when he drew a low draft number as a first-year student in 1966, putting him at high risk of being drafted, he started paying much closer attention to anti-war efforts, and "once I started paying attention, I connected with students – mostly graduate students – who were paying attention to other social issues."

But most students were less directly affected, and anti-war sentiment remained a minority sentiment within the U.Va. community, recalled alumnus Karl Hess – until student anti-war protests were ignited by the killings at Kent State University of four college students by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.

Reflecting the great differences in how events were perceived by different local communities, the local black community newspaper, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, reacted thus: "The Kent State killings of four unarmed students by National Guardsmen shocked a nation that had been relatively indifferent to similar atrocities committed against black people." (May 28, 1970)

In the following "May Days," thousands of U.Va. students protested the war. Classes were disrupted and 68 students were arrested. (They were quickly released and charges dropped against all but one student.)

Reflecting the separation between U.Va. students and the local black community, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Tribune made no mention of the May Days turbulence and repercussions over the following months.

However, U.Va. students canvassed Charlottesville to encourage community involvement on "Freedom Day" – May 6, 1970, a "day of peace, music, and thought."  How successful that outreach was is unclear.

The Student Council soon passed a referendum that requested allocation of $100,000 to African-American admissions programs and called for increased enrollment of African-Americans, up to 20 percent of the student body. The council also expressed antiwar sentiments to President Edgar Shannon, who then wrote a strongly worded letter to then Virginia U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. against the continuation of the war.

The presentations of all four groups will be put online or archived for use by future groups, and to stand as a more inclusive account of local history.

"The students' learning was enormously enriched by the community involvement in this class, and it's a type of learning the students almost never get," said Leffler, a history professor and co-leader of U.Va.'s Explorations in Black Leadership oral history project. "I believe this is a class that every one of these students will never forget.  It was transformational. ... This has been one of the most meaningful teaching experiences in my 30 years of teaching."

— By Brevy Cannon