In 1819, the University of Virginia was founded on Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory ideological loyalties — his protection of state rights, his hypocritical views on slavery, and his bold, liberal vision for his university and the country. Jefferson dreamed of a school distinct from its surroundings, calling the secular campus a “village” where America’s men would be educated in an innovative, cosmopolitan curriculum under the imported Corinthian columns of Europe.
“Jefferson was an exemplar of a long-running tension between global and national influences,” Brian Balogh, University of Virginia history professor and co-host of the history podcast “BackStory,” wrote in an email. “He embraced … the Enlightenment experiment. On the other hand, Jefferson was deeply embedded in a network of far more parochial attitudes, exemplified by his attitudes towards slavery and his attachment to a narrow conception of political economy.” From the university’s earliest days, Jefferson’s inclinations toward enlightenment progressivism were constrained by the realities of southern cultural sentiment — a tension which illuminates the current culture wars playing out in Charlottesville.
The school’s first Board of Visitors, under the direction of Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, determined students would be barred from bringing slaves to school (despite being slaveholders themselves). Students readily defied this injunction, and slaves outnumbered whites in Albemarle County until the Civil War. With the first class of students, Jefferson soon lamented that his school had attracted solely the spoiled scions of Southern plantations, who — like the white supremacists who marched Saturday — infused Charlottesville with their vulgarity and violence. They proved abusive to their slaves, and menacing to their professors. Jefferson was forced to personally implore them to halt their riotous behavior, calling the confrontation the “most painful event” of his life.
Unfortunately, their actions were not “vicious irregularities,” as Jefferson described them — they were a reflection of a culture with which the university was inextricably entwined, despite its founder’s progressive inclinations. The same conflicts that plagued the city in the university’s early years have simmered in subsequent centuries.
During the Civil War, U-Va. students and faculty were split on the topic of secession — with most students supporting the Confederacy. The campus was eventually converted into a Confederate armory and hospital, with the South’s flag flying high above the school’s library. After emancipation, blacks were still prohibited from living on campus, clustering nearby in a neighborhood known as “Canada,” visible from the campus’s south lawn. In 1898, the university erected buildings that ended Jefferson’s plan for an open vista, but conveniently screened this community from view.
The second Ku Klux Klan had a chapter on the university campus, and in 1921, the Charlottesville Klan donated $1,000 to the university’s centennial endowment fund. Charlottesville desegregated only under court order following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Despite concerted appeals from black student groups in 1968, 1980, 2007 and 2015 for a host of institutional overhauls at the university, from increased enrollment of black students to further investment in African American scholarship, black student enrollment remains below 10 percent — significantly lower than that of peer institutions. The student body has also been plagued with hate crimes in recent years, with racial slurs appearing on student property in 2003 and last year.
Meanwhile, Charlottesville has morphed into a blue island in a sea of red counties, with Hillary Clinton capturing 80 percent of the vote in 2016; U-Va. is now a fertile ground for conversations surrounding race, diversity and equity. Yet the demographic shift of recent years (Charlottesville has been described as the “happiest city in America”) does not mean an erasure of the city’s troubled history. Today, Charlottesville struggles to reconcile its recent progressivism with its not-so-distant past — a status quo of reluctant change that is evidenced through internal turmoil on the university board, in contentious Jim Crow-era monuments to the Confederacy and in the latent racism of its population.
“Charlottesville obviously, by virtue of the very existence of the statues alt-right demonstrators were willing to kill over today, has a long history with racism,” Aryn Frazier, former president of U-Va.’s Black Student Alliance, told me in an interview after counter-protesting Saturday’s fatal riot.
While Charlottesville’s residents, in the vast majority, condemn the events of the weekend, the City Council and court battle over removal of a Robert E. Lee statue is a microcosm of the city’s ongoing debate between nationalists protective of what they term “Southern heritage” and the city’s progressive population.
Responding to McAuliffe’s statement, Frazier said, “Virginia itself was the heart of the Confederacy, so the commonwealth will likely long play a role in these conversations.” Yet Virginia’s political leadership has been reluctant to look inward and acknowledge that Charlottesville is not simply a destination for white supremacists — it is, and has long been, a home to their now repudiated minority.
Speaking out after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer (D) declared his city the capital of the resistance to racially charged and Trump-emboldened nationalism. Both McAuliffe and Signer’s comments overlook the racism that brings their own citizens — like “Unite the Right” organizer and Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler — to agitate against the progressive globalism they view as “anti-white hatred.”
McAuliffe and Signer now face the daunting challenge of not only acknowledging but also addressing the racial tensions that have always existed and have again ignited in Charlottesville. Their work is unlikely to be bolstered by the current administration, which condemns fake terrorist attacks in Sweden more vociferously than lethal Nazism on American soil.
“Along with all other citizens of Charlottesville we are disturbed and saddened to see these acts of terrorism by nationalists,” Charlottesville resident and former Clinton surrogate Khizr Khan said, speaking on behalf of himself and his wife, Ghazala.
On Friday night, as torch-wielding white supremacists filled the university’s main quadrangle, students still on summer break began posting the hashtag #NotMyTown on social media. In doing so, they put on full display the naivete of their liberalism. Charlottesville has repeatedly found itself the subject of national conversation regarding police brutality, free speech debates and now, white nationalism. This is not a fluke — it is the tension their town was founded on.
To act as though the events of this weekend are a “vicious irregularity” antithetical to the history of Charlottesville and its university is to overlook the fact that the city has been an ideological battleground since the time of Jefferson. Judging by the response of local and national authorities to the events of this weekend, the city’s fraught history of racial conflict will continue to haunt its future.