More than 60 people packed the auditorium at Piedmont Virginia Community College on Tuesday afternoon to watch a documentary on Vinegar Hill, one of Charlottesville’s oldest Black neighborhoods destroyed by so-called urban renewal in the 1960s. A show of hands after the credits rolled revealed that more than a dozen in attendance said they had never heard Vinegar Hill’s story before.
“I guess that’s what you call a white bubble,” one woman in the audience said.
Local filmmakers Lorenzo Dickerson and Jordy Yager were invited to the college Tuesday for a screening and discussion of their film “Raised/Razed” in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday the day before.
The feature-length documentary chronicles the story of the federal- and city-funded demolition of Vinegar Hill as well as the lives of the people who lived there.
Vinegar Hill, originally located west of the Downtown Mall, is today home to a Staples office supply store, a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, the Omni hotel as well as a wide expanse of parking lot that goes almost entirely unused.
The Vinegar Hill of the past that Dickerson and Yager depict in their film, however, was a lively community of Black businesses and homes.
Those businesses were valued at $1.8 million before the neighborhood was razed, according to the documentary, or about $16.5 million today.
Charlottesville began the process of erasing Vinegar Hill in 1960, when Charlottesville voters authorized the redevelopment of the neighborhood. It was largely a decision made for Vinegar Hill, not by Vinegar Hill.
A statewide poll tax, instituted in 1902, required landholding residents pay roughly $1.50 every year in order to vote.
Black residents in Vinegar Hill and elsewhere at the time, many of whom rented or could not afford to pay the poll tax, were disenfranchised.
Those interviewed in the documentary noted that while Black residents eventually won their right to vote, what was lost could not be regained.
“The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a double-edged sword,” said Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, who was interviewed in the documentary. “The language that says that you cannot discriminate based on race also says that you cannot restore based on race.”
The same year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Vinegar Hill came down.
“Most of the money to raze these neighborhoods came from the federal government with the idea that they would be bringing in businesses to take up these spaces,” Dickerson, founder of Maupintown Media which produced the film, told the audience after the screening on Tuesday. “A lot of times, these spaces would stay vacant as parking lots for a number of years.”
Nearly 500 Vinegar Hill residents were forced to relocate, according to the documentary.
Those that stayed in the area mostly relocated to the Westhaven public housing project.
“Westhaven is the largest public housing neighborhood in Charlottesville, and it’s situated in front of 10th and Page,” Yager, who is the director of digital humanities at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville, said during the discussion. “Of course, Westhaven was built on Cox’s Row, which was an all-Black community prior to its destruction. Cox’s Row was also razed to make room for Westhaven public housing. That’s one often glossed-over aspect of Westhaven’s origin story.”
In 2011, Charlottesville City Council approved a resolution issuing an apology for the city’s role in razing Vinegar Hill. Five years later, City Council voted to allocate $15,000 to create a memorial plaque to honor Vinegar Hill.
The plaque sits on a wall at the entry of the Downtown Mall at Ridge McIntire Road and Main Street.
Former Vinegar Hill residents interviewed in the documentary said they had never been offered compensation for relocating their homes at the city’s request.
It took years of education to even produce a resolution and a plaque, Dickerson said.
“Once we’ve been educated and we know this history, then it’s much easier to take action,” Dickerson told the audience Tuesday. “It’s very easy, especially if you’re not from Charlottesville or you’re not from an area that experienced urban renewal, to not know that history if someone doesn’t explicitly tell you. But now we know, and now we can make different choices.”
When one audience member asked Dickerson and Yager about the motives behind urban renewal, whether it was a targeted initiative against Black neighborhoods or a careless campaign to bring in new business, Dickerson said the question was enough to prompt a second documentary.
“The intention piece is the part two, so we don’t have the answer to that yet as far as what was on the hearts and minds of the folks who made these decisions at that time,” Dickerson said. “This film was really focused on giving the [audience] the historical piece of how things were demolished while really focusing on the life of the neighborhood because, we felt like, that wasn’t the piece that was told yet.”
Another screening of “Raised/Razed” will be hosted at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 16. The event is free and open to the public.