Hundreds of people gathered this weekend where once stood businesses and homes and the thriving community of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill to view the premiere of a film that chronicles what once was and how it was lost.
“Raised/Razed,” a documentary by two Charlottesville natives, filmmaker Lorenzo Dickerson and journalist Jordy Yager, follows the story of Vinegar Hill and the people who lived there.
Home to dozens of Black families and the ‘Black downtown’ for almost a century during Virginia’s required-by-law segregation, Vinegar Hill was razed in 1964 as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts.
The documentary also touches on a similar destruction of the historically Black Hayti neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina.
The film premiered Saturday night on the parking deck of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, adjacent to the former Black high school and a pillar of the Vinegar Hill community.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, now located in the school building, served as story advisor for the film.
The documentary was produced with funding from VPM, the state’s Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, and will make its television premiere on VPM PBS May 12 at 9 p.m.
Dickerson said his goal with the documentary was to share parts of the Vinegar Hill story that people often don’t hear and to celebrate the life of the neighborhood and not just the destruction.
“We’re very aware of the narrative that has been Vinegar Hill for the last several years, the narrative of the destruction of the neighborhood. Often when we hear about Vinegar Hill, we hear about it very briefly as it was a Black neighborhood in Charlottesville and it got destroyed, the end,” Dickerson said.
“We were really intentional with going in and creating this project. To tell about the life that occurred in Vinegar Hill for so many years before it was destroyed,” he said. “This film is showing you the sights, and the sounds, and the smells of the neighborhood with folks that lived there telling you about their own personal experiences, playing with their friends and knowing their neighbors across the street and going up the street to the store and going to school. We really want to hone in on that piece of the story.”
Even the location of the premiere was intentional. Dickerson and Yager wanted the premiere to take place outside the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center not only because of the museum’s participation in the project, but also so viewers could look over the site of the former Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
Dickerson and Yager started working with VPM on the project in May 2020, but had the idea for the project long prior. Dickerson said the funding from VPM helped them get the project off the ground, even during a pandemic.
In the film, Dickerson and Yager interview 16 former residents and family members of residents of Vinegar Hill. They both credited their ties to the area as a benefit when looking for interviewees.
“Being natives of the area, knowing a lot of folks and knowing who was in Vinegar Hill, and knowing the family surnames made it a lot easier for us to really connect with folks and figure out who was there, whose parents or grandparents were there at the time,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson said most of the former residents and family members they interviewed still live in the Charlottesville area, and experience the effects of the demolition still today.
“We often think about Vinegar Hill and we think about a physical home that someone lost, but generationally, it’s more than that. It’s a lot more than that, because what does that home represent?” he said.
“Down the line you can take a loan out of that home and pay for your child to go to college or to start a new business or to help the next generation buy another piece of property. So that the ability to do all those things was also lost,” Dickerson said.
The documentary also draws on oral history research conducted by University of Virginia students in 1980, reporting from The Daily Progress and The Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune and thousands of pages of historical records, deeds and housing assessments.
One of Yager’s major discoveries in his research came from property assessments completed on the homes in Vinegar Hill. The assessments were part of the case the city made to demolish the neighborhood.
What the figures showed was that houses owned by Black residents typically were in pristine condition with higher values than homes owned by white property owners who rented to Black families.
Those homes were often falling into disrepair due to the property owners’ neglect.
“There’s this adoption of this narrative, that the neighborhood was a slum neighborhood or blighted neighborhood,” Yager said. “It forced us to kind of question that. [It] really wasn’t like these pictures that we’re seeing in these homes. This does not look like falling down houses.”
There were properties that met those descriptions, however.
“We’re looking at these blighted properties, but they were in fact owned by a white family that rented them exclusively to Black families,” Yager said. “And this white family was the family of the former mayor of Charlottesville, so this is a very prominent and well-to-do family, and there was no housing code to uphold.”
The documentary ends with the suggestion that reparations should be made to residents and descendants of those displaced by urban renewal.
Dickerson and Yager said the goal of the project is for viewers to understand the Black life, success and joy that existed in the neighborhood and that Vinegar Hill was not a slum.
“Don’t believe what you’ve heard,” Dickerson said.