UVA and the History of Race: Property and Power

UVA and the History of Race: Property and Power

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Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. As Baptist minister and former Southern Christian Leadership Council leader Fred Shuttlesworth once said, “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”

The president’s commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. “UVA and the History of Race” – a joint project of UVA Today, the president’s commissions, and faculty members and researchers – presents some of them, written by those who did the research. The project reflects UVA’s educational mission and the commission’s charge to educate, and to support the institution as a living laboratory of learning.

Find all of the stories published to date at UVA Today.

In early December 2015, a minor act of protest became front-page news in Charlottesville. On the entrance sign to the historically African American neighborhood of Fifeville, vandals spray-painted over its anodyne slogan “Historic, Green, Diverse” the words “Vinegar Hill … The Sequel,” in reference to the former downtown Black business and residential district infamously destroyed by the city in the mid-1960s as part of an urban renewal project.1

While workers in the city’s Parks and Recreation department quickly removed and repainted the sign, no one could erase Black residents’ bitter memories of past injustices or assuage their fears of further displacement at the hands of city and University of Virginia officials. Like many historically Black and working-class neighborhoods in Charlottesville, Fifeville today is undergoing what critics and supporters alike call “gentrification,” a process characterized by the redevelopment of older properties into new housing and commercial space that caters to higher-income, and predominantly white, residents. This, in turn, leads to sharp increases in property taxes and rents, making neighborhoods unaffordable to working families and, ultimately, forcing many long-time residents out.

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In 1965, Charlottesville utilized eminent domain to acquire and raze the Vinegar Hill neighborhood and business district, and attempted to redevelop it for a new thoroughfare and commercial project. The project displaced more than 600 Black families and resulted in the closing of more than 30 Black-owned businesses. (Photo courtesy Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority)

In recent years, local residents and activists have flooded public meetings and taken to the streets to demand action by Charlottesville to address its affordable housing crisis. Invariably, they invoke the memory of Vinegar Hill, whose demise has become synonymous with the city’s racist past and threats to its working-class and African American populations in the present. While egregious, the destruction of Vinegar Hill, and the reasons offered by local officials for it, was by no means unprecedented. Rather, throughout the city’s history and still today, African American neighborhoods have borne the costs of the city’s – and the University of Virginia’s – growth. In some instances, the University played a direct role in the physical destruction of Black neighborhoods and displacement of its residents. At other times, its influence has been felt more indirectly.

Almost from the moment UVA began to expand beyond its original Academical Village, Charlottesville’s communities of color faced the threats of displacement and erasure. In the 1830s, free people of color began moving into the area just south of the Academical Village that by the 1860s was increasingly referred to as “Canada,” a reference to the free Black people living there. As early as 1833, Catherine “Kitty” Foster, honored today by the Shadow Catcher Memorial on the South Lawn, became the first free Black woman to own property in this area where she lived and worked as a laundress and seamstress, primarily serving the University community.

By the 1890s, the road separating Canada and the University had been paved and renamed Jefferson Park Avenue, as white developers purchased and built large homes. Thus, Canada became a recurring point of contention for the Board of Visitors, who in 1896 decided to build Old Cabell Hall so as to close off the Academical Village from “the area immediately to the south of the University’s land and in full view … filled with unsightly houses.”

The Shadow Catcher Memorial honors Catherine “Kitty” Foster, who in 1833 became the first free Black woman to own property in an area near UVA known as Canada. The Board of Visitors in 1896 approved construction of Old Cabell Hall in part to close off the Academical Village to the nearby “unsightly houses.” (Photo by Jane Haley)

In the early 1900s, the first white property owners moved into the Canada area, and as development intensified through the 1920s, racially restrictive covenants were instated to prohibit the resale of properties to people of color.

Nearer to the downtown area, the city purchased and razed McKee Row, an area of African American rental houses, to make way for the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson monument and Jackson Park, donated by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire.2

In 1965, Charlottesville utilized eminent domain to acquire the Vinegar Hill neighborhood and business district, raze it, and attempt to redevelop it for a new thoroughfare and commercial development. The urban renewal scheme for Vinegar Hill followed a blueprint proposed by urban planning firm Harland Bartholomew and Associates, infamous for pioneering racially motivated slum clearance in St. Louis.3 As was the case in cities across the nation, urban renewal had a devastating impact on Charlottesville’s African American community. All told, the city’s redevelopment of the area resulted in the forced displacement of more than 600 Black families and the closing of more than 30 Black-owned businesses that, combined, generated a gross annual income of $1.6 million.

In the early 1900s, the city purchased and razed McKee Row, an area of Black rental houses, to make way for the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson monument, which was dedicated in 1921. (Photo courtesy UVA Library)

Like countless other urban renewal projects of this era, the purported benefits resulting from Vinegar Hill’s destruction failed to materialize. For years afterward, the cleared site remained vacant as the city struggled to attract new commercial development to the downtown area. “It just stayed like a cemetery,” former resident Teresa Jackson Price remarked. For many in Charlottesville’s African American community, the slow pace of redevelopment cast the city’s stated motives for razing Vinegar Hill into further doubt, and deepened their distrust of city leadership.

The displacement of Vinegar Hill’s residents coincided with a massive increase in the University of Virginia’s student body and expansion of the University’s physical footprint. Between 1965 and 1975, UVA’s student population doubled from 7,249 to 15,179, fueled by the admission of women (starting in 1970) and the post-World War II baby boom.

The Vinegar Hill site remained vacant for years after being razed. Here is a view of the area today. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

UVA’s growth during these years came at Black Charlottesvillians’ expense. During the 1970s, the University Health System encroached upon the Black neighborhood of Gospel Hill with the constructions of Jordan Hall (named for noted eugenicist Harvey E. Jordan, and later renamed Pinn Hall, in honor of Dr. Vivian Pinn, the School of Medicine’s first Black female graduate), McLeod Hall and the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Adjacent to the prior community of Canada, Gospel Hill was originally settled by free Black families in the antebellum era. Through the 1970s and ’80s, UVA acquired properties in this neighborhood, razed them and constructed either parking lots or medical facilities.

The Health System redeveloped the last remains of Gospel Hill when it built the new University Hospital in 1984. The University had considered the site of the old Blue Ridge Sanatorium off Route 20, but ultimately determined that proximity to central Grounds should be a top priority for the site choice. Today, no physical trace of Gospel Hill remains in the built environment of the Health System.4

The eradication of these working-class Black neighborhoods paved the way, both literally and figuratively, for Charlottesville’s economic reorientation and demographic changes in recent decades. By the early 1980s, Charlottesville was regularly included on lists of “best places to live” and “best places to retire,” while UVA similarly began ascending the ranks of “Best College Towns in America.” Popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan gushed about the city’s “beauty” and various amenities and attractions that would appeal to its predominantly white, urbane readership. As high-income earners and retirees flocked to the city, housing prices soared and growing numbers of residents found themselves priced out.

While UVA’s student body swelled, the number of on-Grounds housing units did not. Between 2000 and 2017, UVA’s combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment grew by 4,549 students. Among these, 3,920 new students turned to the off-Grounds, private rental market for their housing. UVA served only 629 students with new on-Grounds beds added during the same timeframe. As more students entered the city’s rental market, more of its working-class population left. More affordable residential neighborhoods became extensions of the University and inhospitable to families and children. Landlords reoriented their business around the student housing market, while investors rushed to acquire and redevelop properties to capitalize on growing demand. 

Pinn Hall (originally named Jordan Hall) was one of several Health System buildings constructed in the 1970s in the former Black community of Gospel Hill. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The growing numbers of students living off Grounds contributed to soaring rents citywide. Between 2012 and 2018, the average apartment rents rose 18.1%, jumping by 9.4% in 2017 alone. Among the major apartment buildings in the Charlottesville market, average rents were $1,384. This, as one report on the city’s housing needs noted, means that “a single person working a minimum-wage job would need to work 147 hours per week” to be able to afford to live in the city. A person earning $15 an hour (the new living wage standard adopted in January 2020 by the University) would still need to work 71 hours per week to be able to afford the average apartment in Charlottesville. At 40 hours a week, individuals earning $15 an hour would spend over half their income on housing. That same report found a deficit of 3,318 affordable housing units in Charlottesville for 2017, projected to reach 4,020 by 2040. The latter figure parallels that of UVA’s off-Grounds enrollment growth since 2000: 3,920 students.5

The growing cost of living in Charlottesville is, in one sense, indicative of the city’s prosperity. But the benefits, as well as the burdens, of economic growth have been unevenly distributed, and too often come at the expense of Charlottesville’s Black residents. Between 2010 and 2017, white median household income in Charlottesville rose from $45,000 to $64,000, inflation adjusted. Meanwhile, African American median household income actually fell from $31,000 to $28,000. Over the past two decades, the city’s African American population has declined from 22% to 18.4% of the city’s total population.

These changes have been especially pronounced in the neighborhoods surrounding the University. In the 10th and Page neighborhood, the African American population dropped 17 percentage points between 2010 and 2017, from 72% to 55%. Simultaneously, median rent in this neighborhood rose from $666 to $939, median home value increased from $160,300 to $205,800, and overall median household income rose from $17,000 to $38,000. The dwindling number of longtime residents who remain bemoan the loss of community that has accompanied the area’s changing racial and socioeconomic demographics, a transformation embodied in the proliferation of fences and walls around properties and new businesses catering to the consumer tastes (and pocketbooks) of students and young white professionals.6

In the 10th and Page neighborhood near UVA, the Black population dropped 17% between 2010 and 2017, while median rent rose from $666 to $939, and median home value increased from $160,300 to $205,800. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In the past year, UVA has taken steps to address the city’s affordable housing crisis. In March 2020, the University announced a new goal of supporting the development of 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in the local market. It also established the Affordable Housing Advisory Group, which seeks to make recommendations and engage with community and housing partners to reach this goal.

President Jim Ryan said the University will allow use of UVA or UVA Foundation-owned land for the development of the affordable housing as part of a multi-phased approach over the next decade. The University said it will ultimately select development partners through a competitive process. UVA also in recent years has discussed the possibility of requiring second-year students to live on-Grounds. Currently, only first-year students are required to do so.

As these efforts proceed, a fuller understanding of this past and the ways it continues to shape and inform the politics of the present will be key to building a more equitable and inclusive Charlottesville community.

Andrew Kahrl is professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the social, political and environmental history of real estate, land use and taxation in the 20th-century United States.

Brian Cameron is a 2019 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences. His thesis, “Unaffordable Injustice: Segregation, Gentrification, and Urban Policy in Charlottesville, Virginia” won the William Lee Miller Thesis Prize for the Political and Social Thought program. He currently serves as the AmeriCorps VISTA member for Habitat for Humanity Virginia.

Up Next: Overcoming a legacy of employment discrimination against Black workers at the University Hospital took decades of perseverance.

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Notes
1. Chris Suarez, “Fifeville sign vandalized with reference to Vinegar Hill.” The Daily Progress, Dec. 5, 2015.
2. Sophie Abramowitz, Eva Latterner, and Gillet Rosenblith, “How Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate statues helped decimate the city’s historically successful black communities.” Slate, June 23, 2017.
3. Mark Benton, “‘Saving’ the City: Harland Bartholomew and Administrative Evil in St. Louis,” Public Integrity 20, no. 2 (2018), 198.
4. Brian Cameron, Morgan Feldenkris, and Allie Arnold, "Housing the University: Student Housing and Displacement in Charlottesville, Virginia," May 2018.
5. Form-Based Codes Institute and Partners for Economic Solutions, “Housing Needs Assessment: Socioeconomic and Housing Market Analysis,” City of Charlottesville, April 4, 2018.
6. Jordy Yager, “A new page: Longtime 10th and Page residents are seeing a shift in the neighborhood.” C-Ville Weekly, Dec. 1, 2017.

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