A campus healing

National/World News

The University of Virginia held a peaceful march and vigil for Charlottesville in August 16, 2017.

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The images of white nationalists marching across the campus of the University of Virginia, carrying torches and chanting racist slogans, scared Shanice Theodore at first.

She had trouble sleeping. Her mother had to give her pep talks.

But the 17-year-old, an incoming freshman at UVA, says she isn’t discouraged.

Yes, she’s aware that the university once didn’t admit African-American students like herself. Yes, she knows that America still has racists who believe that white people are superior.

But the hate that came to Charlottesville only makes her more determined to succeed at school and become a lawyer.

“I’m actually more excited to come to show people like white nationalists that we are all supposed to be here,” says Theodore, who is from Brooklyn, New York.

As classes began Tuesday at this historic school founded by Thomas Jefferson, 10 days after deadly violence jolted the community, UVA is seeking not only to heal, but to learn from what happened.

And some parents, dropping new students off at the school last week, trust the university to do the right thing but are still worried for their kids’ safety. Steve Gallagher, an attorney from Alexandria, has urged his daughter to have a plan if a protest is looming or “if some bad guys come into town.”

“What we don’t want as parents is to have this become the center for … violent protest at the same time when they’re supposed to be going to the university,” he says.

‘We need to understand’

As a public university, UVA does not require permits to reserve its open spaces, although campus police shut down the August 11 torchlight rally as an “unlawful assembly” after altercations broke out between protesters and counterprotesters.

Some students say the thought of neo-Nazis holding protests on the Grounds, as they call their campus, makes them feel personally violated. One student leader struggles to find the words to describe her emotions.

“I don’t believe … I can fully heal from those events without knowing that I am working alongside people in this community to make our home in Charlottesville a better place and safer place to live,” says Maeve Curtin.

The university has formed a task force to look at issues raised by the clashes. Marches and discussions are planned. And professors say they intend to address the history of race relations and of Charlottesville and the university itself in their classes to put the recent violence in context.

Brian Balogh, a UVA history professor who also co-hosts “BackStory,” a nationally syndicated podcast, says the clashes are an opportunity for some of his colleagues to explain the genesis of fascism and Nazism.

“We need to understand how these ideas and some of these tactics were incorporated in American politics,” he says. “It’s particularly important to understand this history because many of the alt-right protesters claim to be super or hyper-American, yet their ideas did not originate in the United States.”‘

‘An invasion’ of our space

Black alumni have flocked to campus in recent days, volunteering their time to assure students that they are supported and valued.

The outreach, called HoosAgainstHate — Wahoos, or Hoos, are an unofficial nickname for members of the UVA community — started when black graduates grew worried about students’ safety after the white nationalists’ protest.

The graduates want to support current students and ease the concerns of incoming freshmen.

“To see an invasion — because that’s what it was — of our space … I had to be here,” says Monica Davis, an African-American graduate, to the group of fellow alums.

“Some families do just need us to … let them know there is love here,” she says.

A complex legacy

Thomas Jefferson founded the university in 1819, and his complicated legacy is everywhere here.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson famously wrote “all men are created equal.” He also owned slaves, and slave labor helped erect the campus’ buildings.

The university, like many other institutions, is working to come to terms with its past ties to slavery.

In 2013, UVA created a commission to explore its historical relationship with slavery. Two years later, the university dedicated a new five-story residence hall to William and Isabella Gibbons, a married couple who served as a butler and cook and were enslaved by university professors before the Emancipation Proclamation.

And a university board also recently approved erecting a $6 million campus memorial to enslaved laborers whose sweat helped build the school.

But a bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a nearby Charlottesville park has tested Jefferson’s ideals of free speech and peaceful assembly.

The city council voted several months ago to remove the statue and strip Lee’s name from the park. A group of residents sued the city to keep the Lee statue in place. A judge has agreed to temporarily block its removal while the litigation proceeds.

The debate over the statue brought hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville. The day after the torchlight campus march, white nationalists brawled with counterprotesters in downtown Charlottesville, where police said a woman was killed when a man drove his car into a crowd.

Tensions flared again Monday night at a city council meeting, where attendees accused the city of not doing enough to stop the violence.

Wes Gobar, president of the university’s Black Student Alliance, says it’s “easy to condemn … the alt-right“for its racism, referring to the self-styled descriptor for many white-rights activists.

“Charlottesville and UVA, they will say, ‘This isn’t us.’ And … they’re not white supremacists. But there’s a lot of systemic racism (in Charlottesville),” he says.

There’s still work to be done on campus, says Gobar, who would like to see UVA increase its percentage of black students and faculty.

Dr. Marcus Martin, a UVA vice president and chief officer for diversity, says the school is working on it. In an email, he says UVA is committed to fostering an inclusive environment and has made “significant progress” by increasing its enrollment of African-American students by 45% over the past five years.

African-American students now make up 8.5% of undergraduates, a slight increase the previous school year, according to numbers from Martin. He says tenure-track African-American professors make up 5% of the faculty but the university is working hard to improve that number.

‘Advancing human progress’

At least one recent UVA graduate is expressing frustration at the racial climate awaiting students this week.

Martese Johnson was thrust into the spotlight after a 2015 encounter with police officers outside a Charlottesville bar turned violent.

The 2016 graduate says it’s “sad” that students entering the school this week “have to cope with such fear, and fear of being victimized on a drastic level” and adds that the university and the Charlottesville community have “seen a transition from covert, implicit racism to this past weekend where we’ve seen the most overt and direct racism.”

But Balogh, the history professor, believes the clashes also present an opportunity to discuss the university and the city’s “involvement in the construction of white supremacy.”

He says African Americans’ rights were systemically stripped away in the late 19th century and early 20th century and “in their place a regime of white supremacy was constructed” — symbolized by statues of Confederate heroes.

“That’s why the Lee statue in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville tells you more about the state of race relations in the 1920s than it tells you about the Civil War,” he says.

The university has appointed Risa Goluboff, dean of its law school, to chair a task force to identify its next steps. School officials says they will re-examine policies about what types of activities will be allowed on campus and will hire an outside firm to review security.

“Our tasks ahead are short-term and long-term; they are about physical safety and emotional well-being,” Goluboff, a civil rights historian wrote in a letter to the school community. “They are as practical as revising policies and as lofty as advancing human progress.”

Students excited, parents cautious

Meanwhile, first-year UVA students say they’re excited to start college.

“I’m kind of hoping to put the events from last weekend behind me,” says Liza Williamson,18, of Richmond. “Hopefully, they won’t come back again.”

Her mother, Amanda says she is focusing on the beginning of her oldest child’s college journey, “not the people who are trying to ruin it.”

Will Farley, 18, a first-year student from suburban Chicago, had a moment of panic last week when he saw the flickering lights of a candlelight vigil from afar as he and his parents drove around the campus. At first, he feared he had stumbled upon another white nationalist protest.

The vigil’s attendees walked the same route that the supremacists marched five nights earlier. The peaceful event comforted him.

“It’s a helpful way to try to put things behind and move forward,” Farley says.

‘You keep this safe’

At a reception Saturday for incoming black students, a dean with the school’s Office of African American Affairs reads aloud one of the welcome letters black alumni wrote to the students.

This writer is Chidi Uche, 27, who holds a bachelors and masters degree from the school. In her letter, she welcomes a student with optimism, saying “You’ll be encouraged to step out on faith.”

But she warns that the world beyond their campus harbors threats.

“The safe bubble you feel here will be deceiving, as we saw last week in the disgusting display of hate and violence,” she says.

Uche hopes her words reach the incoming students. A few nod their heads, making her feel proud.

Then Uche gives her letter to an incoming student who is chosen because she is celebrating an upcoming birthday.

It’s Shanice Theodore, the aspiring lawyer from Brooklyn.

The two women hug. And Uche tells her, “You keep this safe.”

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