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Vinegar Hill monument project at standstill due to lack of funding

As Charlottesville reimagines the parks where statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson once stood, plans to create another statue commemorating a Black neighborhood destroyed by the city are languishing due to a lack of funding.

The project, the building of a monument to commemorate the Black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, was partially funded by the city. Vinegar Hill, home to dozens of Black families and businesses for almost a century, was razed in 1964 as part of the city’s — and the nation’s — urban renewal efforts. These efforts have since come under intense scrutiny and criticism for ruining Black neighborhoods and obliterating their history.

In Charlottesville, many Black residents lost their homes, and the businesses they frequented were shuttered. The city officially apologized in 2011, but many community members believe the city could — and should — have done more to acknowledge the destruction of the center of African American life in a segregated city.

“That moment essentially ended economic power for Black people. It was the beginning of public housing in Charlottesville as a consequence,” said Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, outside of which the monument was to be built. The center is located at the Jefferson School City Center.

As the city looks forward after the removal of the Confederate statues, Douglas and others want officials to see the Vinegar Hill monument as a priority.

Vinegar Hill was a Black residential and business community in downtown Charlottesville, founded in the 1870s. It included the segment of West Main Street as it moves from Second Street Southwest up to Fourth Street. This portion of Main Street is also known as Random Row. It was leveled in 1964.

The Downtown Mall occupies part of the area where 129 Vinegar Hill businesses, dozens of homes and an African American church once stood. A small plaque on the mall commemorates Vinegar Hill, but there are no other public markers to the neighborhood or the people who lived there.

“It was one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city of Charlottesville. Not just the oldest Black community, but one of the oldest communities, either white or Black, in the city,” Douglas said.

For many Black residents of Charlottesville, the razing was not only a painful erasure of their history but also a stinging invalidation of their very existence. And today, the city is facing its legacy of exclusionary racial housing covenants as it revises its future land use map and prepares for potential rezoning.

In 2009, the city formed a Dialogue on Race committee to address race relations in Charlottesville. The city officially apologized for razing Vinegar Hill in a City Council resolution in 2011. Then came the idea for a monument, which was to have been installed on the grounds of the Jefferson School City Center. Douglas said the committee partnered with the Jefferson School for the site and support from historians for the project.

“The committee created a jury system that would then choose an artist that would develop a design for some level of commemoration. That process occurred, and the city did give some money towards the [design] process,” Douglas said.

According to City Council minutes, in December 2011, Elizabeth Breeden, a member of the Dialogue on Race committee, asked the council to appropriate $24,000 from the city’s Percent for Art fund to pay for the design stage of the monument. The council voted to appropriate $18,000.

Breeden told the council at that time that the Dialogue on Race would try to raise $100,000 to $300,000 from private organizations to finance construction of the monument.

Process begins

The Dialogue on Race committee in turn selected a jury of interested community members to choose an artist to design the Vinegar Hill monument. The group chose Melvin Edwards, a renowned New York-based sculptor whose works are on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and other venues across the country. His work often centers around African American history and the legacy of slavery.

In 2012, Edwards visited City Hall to discuss ideas for the monument with community members, including some who grew up in Vinegar Hill.

In 2014, Edwards unveiled his design for a 12-foot-high, 12-ton stainless steel monument.

Since that time, nothing has been done with Edwards’ design.

“[Edwards] is one of the most important internationally known African American artists in America. He came, he had several meetings with over 600 community members largely in the African American community … He created a [design], and what was left to do was to raise funds for it, and that process has not occurred,” Douglas said.

Douglas said the contract with Edwards was through the Dialogue on Race using funds from the city. But the city was unable to provide a copy of the contract.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Daily Progress, city spokesman Brian Wheeler said that after searching by both procurement and the city attorney’s office, the contract and related records “could not be found, or do not exist.”

Wheeler provided documentation of the City Council resolution to provide the $18,000 for the monument’s design process, allocated from the Percent for Art fund.

It is unclear how much Edwards was paid. The plan Breeden submitted to the council called for a $3,000 stipend for the artist proposals and $10,000 for the design renderings.

“At this point, I’m waiting for a notice to proceed,” Edwards told The Daily Progress in 2016. “I have nothing to add at this point.”

Breeden also told The Daily Progress in 2016 that she did not expect the fundraising to be as difficult as it has been.

“To tell you the honest truth,” Breeden said, “I was sure this was such a compelling narrative and I thought this would be easy to find one or two funders interested in telling the other narratives that are about our history.”

Funding struggles

In 2017, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces recommended that the city provide additional funding toward the monument.

“We talked about it very little,” said John Edwin Mason, a member of that commission. “There was already a design for a memorial, but it seemed not to have captured the community’s imagination, and fundraising was stalled.”

In response to the recommendation for more funding, then-Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy asked the City Council at a meeting in September 2017 for direction about whether city funding should go toward the Vinegar Hill monument project.

But councilors disagreed on whether the city should provide funding, because the design process did not go through the city’s typical processes, although opportunities for public input were given during Edwards’ visit. Councilors discussed waiting until redesigns of the Market Street and Court Square parks, where the Lee and Jackson statues stood, respectively, were done.

Then-Councilor Wes Bellamy favored funding. At that meeting, Bellamy proposed a motion to provide $25,000 of city funds to the project once private funds were raised and the project was ready to move forward.

“I thought it was incredibly important that we have some kind of commemoration, specifically for those who … were affected by Vinegar Hill, because it’s of the utmost importance that we have a visual, not just a plaque … that is a representation and tells the story about what transpired in Vinegar Hill,” said Bellamy, who served on the council from 2016 to 2020.

But the council did not act and has not discussed it since. Minutes from the meeting hint that a lack of private funding led to the inaction:

“The Vinegar Hill Monument has been designed by internationally recognized artist Melvin Edwards. Efforts to raise the approximately $300,000 have experienced little success. When the monument was initially proposed, there was an expectation that the project would be funded through private donations and grants. The monument has been planned for the grounds of the Jefferson School. There have been some recent discussions that ask whether the creation of a Vinegar Hill Park on the Downtown Mall would include a monument as a public art element. Planning is underway for Vinegar Hill Park and the area is slated for significant commercial development project. Staff does not feel engagement and planning have advanced to a stage where we can comment on a Downtown Mall location of the monument.”

None of the members of that City Council still serves on the panel today.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the statue or something to commemorate Vinegar Hill during my tenure,” Bellamy said. “And I’m disappointed that we still don’t have something, and I’m hoping that that will change in the very near future.”

Bellamy said the Dialogue on Race projects and other committees that the city has formed over the years are not necessarily intended to be long-term permanent panels.

“Essentially, you bring folks together to talk about not only race but the history of different things. And then you get into committees to come up with ideas about how we create change. And once those committee’s recommendations are presented to the council, their work is done. So that’s essentially what transpired,” he said.

“I feel like this is probably the only thing that I truly advocated for and didn’t get, or that hasn’t come to fruition,” Bellamy said. “I think another part of the problem of why this didn’t come to fruition is that [the City Council] was doing a whole lot. I know I probably had at least eight projects simultaneously. You know, you only have so much staff. It’s hard to do it all. And, unfortunately, this is kind of one of those things that we didn’t get a chance to complete.”

Bellamy said he hopes to see renewed interest in the monument and wants the city to revisit the project.

Wheeler said that while the city had committed the initial $18,000, the project was private and not a city initiative.

“… the city’s Dialogue on Race and Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces were certainly involved in making recommendations to council in this area,” Wheeler wrote in an email. “The City Council’s involvement to date has been to provide a modest funding commitment of $18,000 to the private fundraising effort for the Vinegar Hill Monument as designed by sculptor Melvin Edwards.”

Douglas said the project was fueled by the Dialogue on Race in partnership with the Jefferson School. She disagreed with the assessment that it was a private project.

“This is not a Jefferson School project by any means. So I can’t really take the lead on it. But we have partnered [with the city] because we have the capacity to do the kind of programming that would support the monument on site here,” Douglas said.

“The [Dialogue on Race] committee came to the Jefferson School Foundation, and asked if they could save the project, and the foundation agreed to it. So the city can’t divorce itself from it … it was a Dialogue on Race project. That’s why they gave the initial money,” she said.

The Jefferson School set about to do its part to build the monument, raising about $20,000 for the project, including through a GoFundMe campaign in 2017.

In 2017, the Jefferson School received a $34,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the monument. However, Douglas said the Jefferson School had to return the funds because it was unable to raise enough money to fulfill the requirements of the grant.

Moving forward

For the project to proceed, Douglas said she thinks the city needs to reclaim some responsibility for it.

“What needs to happen is for the city to agree that this is in fact their project, because, you know, the initial funding didn’t come from anywhere other than the city,” Douglas said. “I think the city should entertain this project and that it is at least worth another conversation and another look.”

Current councilors vary in their familiarity with the Vinegar Hill project. Two said they were not aware of it at all.

Councilor Heather Hill said she is familiar with the project, but it hasn’t been discussed in her tenure since joining the council in 2018. Hill is the council representative to the Historic Resources Committee. Hill said the committee briefly discussed the monument in early 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t appeared on an agenda since.

Councilor Michael Payne said he’s discussed the monument in a few conversations about reimagining public art throughout the city.

“But the conversations have been higher level and not anything in depth or with clear action items,” he said.

Payne said he is open to revisiting the project.

“Obviously, now is a great time to re-engage in that conversation in a serious way as part of a broader effort to change the narrative told via our public art throughout the city as we reimagine the spaces where Confederate statues once stood; the slave auction block site; the former site of the Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark statue, etc.,” Payne said. “I think it’s definitely worth thinking about how different pieces of public art combine to tell a story about the city and how new art can be a part of that process.”

Councilors Sena Magill and Lloyd Snook said they were unfamiliar with the project. Mayor Nikuyah Walker did not respond to a request for comment.

Douglas said she wants the city and the community to see the value in the Vinegar Hill monument, especially as discussions arise about what should replace the Confederate monuments.

“Vinegar Hill is just one step in a long history of Black displacement in this city. It just happens to be one that had some really devastating results … The city needs to acknowledge the process of dismantling Black communities over and over and over again based on this notion that they were clearing slums,” Douglas said. “The truth of that history needs to be recognized by the city. It’s not just Vinegar Hill.


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