Charlottesville 2017

In 2016, the seemingly simple request of tearing down a statue symbolizing racism was met with intense resistance from white nationalists and the KKK. Those petitioning to keep Confederate statues argued that they were symbols of Southern pride and free speech. Although many point to their historical connection to the civil war, there is a common misconception regarding their construction. These statues were not intended for the purpose of celebrating Southern pride during the reconstruction era, rather they were made in the 1920s to attack the black population. During this period, the KKK was rampant, and the lynching of African Americans was a common aspect of the social hierarchy. White supremacists felt threatened by any advancements in the black population and wanted to assert their place as being higher in social ranking through intense violence and intimidation. During this time, there was a “romanticized rebirth of the Old South” (8).

The tension regarding the Confederate statues eventually escalated to a planned “invasion” of Charlottesville by white nationalists in 2017. This followed the announcement of the long-debated decision by the commission that the Lee and Jackson statues did in fact symbolize white supremacy. There were two options presented: Removal of the statue to a site dedicated to accurately portraying its history or physically transforming the statue to better represent its complex historical background. It was voted that the Lee statue should be removed, and Lee Park’s name would also be changed. Additionally, Jackson’s statue would stay put but be transformed to better reflect history. This decision triggered white supremacists to riot and mob the city in protest. The result of this was the tragic death of Heather Heyer from being hit by a white supremacist’s car.

Holsinger’s library is a contrasting portrait of history in comparison to the statues dated back to nearly the same period. This archive shows the black Charlottesvillians as individuals, not simply a mass. These portraits were commissioned by African Americans and let them have agency over their own representation. Although these portraits adorn present day Charlottesville in its restaurants and offices, the reality of the past is often ignored. There is still a lack of acknowledgment and understanding of the true and painful history.

The chaos of August 2017 was not a random event. Not only was racism a foundational element of the riot, but antisemitism also fueled the white supremacists. The dominant symbology was the Confederate flag and the swastika. This ideology is a combination of superstition and hate founded in fear of an “other.” The belief of a “master-race” is the driving force behind this sort of superstition. When looking at August 2017, it is crucial to understand the history of hate behind the event. 

The events on August 11th and 12th were not the only hateful acts in Charlottesville that year. However, given the right to assemble law, these events were not preemptively stopped. Songs and chanting were common among these events to create a communal voice fueling their collective hatred. The chant, “Blood and Soil” directly originated from Nazi Germany and the songs had racist, Southern roots. Additionally, the commonly used tiki torches in these rallies paid homage to the symbology of torches within the KKK.

The riots on the 11th and 12th caused the community and UVA to self-reflect and debate their future. The aftermath of the event could be utilized to construct a more inclusive and understanding environment within the area. The specific relationship between UVA and the surrounding community was brought into question. How much responsibility does UVA have for its close communities and neighborhoods? Through initiating actions regarding social injustices, UVA could “set a national standard for the behavior, practices, and responsibilities of a public university in the twenty-first century” (214).

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