Virginia’s Black History: A Virtual Experience 

[Photo credit: Michael Cheuk] DeTeasa Gethers, docent with Beloved Community C-ville, points out names inscribed in the walls of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

By Amie Knowles
February 16, 2022

A local organization seeks to tell the Black history of Charlottesville—one community member at a time. 

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Sometimes, history isn’t as far away as textbooks may make it feel. That’s one takeaway participants of the Beloved Community C-ville’s virtual tour may glean.

Prior to the Unite the Right rally, Elizabeth Shillue sought to bring positive change to Charlottesville. She organized screenings of the documentary “I’m Not Racist… Am I?” throughout the area in 2015, eventually garnering thousands of viewers.

Thanks to the momentum from the movie and her activism aspirations, the social worker set out to create what is now Beloved Community C-ville, a grassroots organization that provides resources, opportunities, and a platform for those working to create social change and equity within the Charlottesville area. The organization got its name from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, where the Civil Rights leader spoke of a goal to “create a beloved community.”

In 2017, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members from the Ku Klux Klan descended on the city several times throughout a period of months. On May 13, torch-wielding protesters led by Richard Spencer, took to what was then known as Lee Park, shouting “you will not replace us!” They were protesting plans to remove the Confederate monument featuring Gen. Robert E. Lee.

On Aug. 11, a group of white nationalists gathered at the University of Virginia, once again wielding torches, while shouting things like “white lives matter,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” a phrase associated with Nazis. The next day, they returned to attend the deadly Unite the Right rally, to further protest the removal of Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments.

The violent demonstration ended when then-20-year-old Ohio resident James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. 

Following the “Summer of Hate,” Shillue noted an uptick in interest in the film she’d shown years before—and from there, she and other community members started putting together a historical tour centered around Charlottesville’s storied past. 

Uncovering the Past

A pastor. An artist. A professor. The voices of Beloved Community C-ville came from all different backgrounds to tell one story: the story of Charlottesville. 

“When history is learned in just a factual way, you take it in with your mind,” Shillue said. “Yet if you hear it from a person who has some connection or lived experience and hear it as a story, you take it in at a heart level—and that changes how you relate to the history. It makes it become more real and something that you feel more of a connection to.”

From learning about the Slave Auction Block where African Americans were sold as property to the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, Shillue and team brought residents together to recall their remembrances. 

“We had built a team of six docents and these advisory members; we’re a multiracial team—most of us, over 70% of us, aren’t white. It’s a very unique group, and we are really kind of very energized by our common mission: we want to shine the light of truth on our shared history,” Shillue said. “We’re people who grew up here and want to work on creating a better, more equitable community.”

Changing The Presentation

Originally, the idea was to have a tour bus highlighting different Black history locations throughout the city. The group created scripts and a map. The ideas on how to present the locations changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck Virginia.

Rather than putting the tour idea on the back burner until the pandemic eased, Shillue moved forward with the idea. She decided to host the tour virtually through a series of videos produced at the various stops, each featuring the people of Charlottesville. 

“We really found that the material, by having it available online, is going to actually really extend our reach of who can take in this content. And it also creates an opportunity [because] the platform can hold so much information so that we can provide short videos, kind of an entry point into a site’s history. But then there’s [an] opportunity to link to other resources and share what other people in the community are doing, you know, articles and things that people can read and go deeper if they want to.”

Black History Month And Beyond

Dr. Jalane Schmidt, a Beloved Community C-ville advisory member and University of Virginia professor, noted the importance of talking about Black history and celebrating the stories—especially this month. 

“It’s been left out of kind of standard narrations of US History, but it’s an important constituent. It’s crazy when you think about just the expansion of democracy as we know it—a lot of it has been as a result of Black people’s struggles,” Schmidt said. “The Republic as we know it today just really wouldn’t exist in the form we know it.”

And while emphasis is placed on Black history during the month of February across the nation, Beloved Community C-ville’s website and Youtube page are up and active year-round.

“The history and the life experiences of our Black community members had been, until recently, either untold or really regulated to the margins,” Shillue said. “So this is a way of shining a spotlight on it and making it accessible.”

And that accessibility brings stories to the surface about our history as a collective.

“It’s really important to highlight these contributions because as it’s often said, ‘Black history is American history.’ It’s important and needs to be taught as such because it helps to understand where our country’s been and where it’s going,” Schmidt said. “If you look at it kind of through these actors, through these African American historical figures, you can see the expansion of multiracial democracy, and it’s made the country what it is, so it’s really important to understand.”

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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