Charlottesville Men Share Stories of Race Relations in the City's Past
Even in Charlottesville, considered one of the most liberal cities in Virginia, blacks and whites had to fight to be seen not only equal as late as the 1970s and beyond.
NBC29 spoke to two men who represent two sides of the coin: Mark Feldstein, a white man who was born and raised in Charlottesville and Frank Walker, a black man who was a transplant surprised by the race relations he found here.
But they both fought similar struggles for equality in the commonwealth.
Mark Feldstein is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a long-time investigative journalist. His first exposee started in Charlottesville grade school, at Walker Junior High School, now known as Walker Upper Elementary, with a required History of Virginia textbook, written in the 1920s, that was blatantly racist.
"I remember how it talked about how happy the slaves were making a living for themselves and for the people for whom they worked," he said. "And they talked about how the abolitionists were ‘cruel heartless people' who had no regard for the masters or their property. ‘Property' is what they said referring to the human beings the chattel who were their slaves."
This was a required seventh-grade textbook in the commonwealth. Even at a young age, Feldstein knew this was wrong.
"It was so outdated and racist that I was appalled and I wrote an article for the Walker Talker Junior High newspaper contrasting what the book said with factual reality," Feldstein said.
"The fact is, slaves weren't happy. Fact is masters beat and whipped their slaves and killed their slaves and thousands fled to escape slavery."
This was the 1970s - late, Feldstein said, in the civil rights movement to have such a racist textbook in schools. But when his family moved to Charlottesville, racism was all around.
"When we got there, confederate flags were flying everywhere, 'the N word' was used by everyone," he said. "And Charlottesville, which was the most liberal city in the state of Virginia, was not very liberal at all."
Feldstein's father also fought for civil rights in his own way by helping to integrate Charlottesville barber shops. After discovering that the barber shop wouldn't cut black men's hair he stood up, both literally and figuratively.
"The barber said ‘that's right. We don't cut that kinky stuff,'" Feldstein recalled.
He said his dad got up, threw the apron on the ground, and walked out.
"He had his hair half cut and half long and he wore that as a badge of honor," he said.
Feldstein's father staged a boycott and the barber shops were eventually integrated, but Feldstein said his dad was still forced out of the University of Virginia where he was a professor due to that incident.
"My dad was just a math professor. He wasn't even political, he just had a real sense of right and wrong," Feldstein said. "In math there's a right and wrong answer and he felt the same thing ought to be true in human relations."
That's a feeling that's echoed by Charlottesville artist Frank Walker, who was born and raised in Charlottesville. His work often portrays the everyday life of blacks in the community.
"Being in Virginia, I think, has probably left a long legacy of slavery and racism in Charlottesville," Walker said.
Walker's neighborhood, Vinegar Hill, was primarily black before it was broken apart as a part of Charlottesville's "urban renewal" campaign, starting in the mid '60s.
"Everything from pool halls to restaurants, to barber shops," Walker said. "All that was just removed. Businesses displaced, rental units, housing, displaced."
"Most families are still here. Those people displaced have moved to other neighborhoods, probably live on fixed income now," Walker said. "They were never able to recover from the loss of those businesses."
He said his is one of the few buildings still standing.
"We don't have anything else for them to take," he laughed.
Even though Walker's shop is still standing, and Feldstein succeeded in having the racist textbook removed, they both say there are still race issues to be resolved in Charlottesville.
"I still think there are issues of (being pulled over for being) black while driving, people put in projects and confined to different areas, discrimination for housing," Walker said.
"There's always room for improvement," he said.
Feldstein said when the racist textbook was removed from his school he saw how the power of the press could be used for good and that inspired him to become an investigative journalist. He said that experience as a journalist helps him to understand that racial disparities likely still exist in Charlottesville.
"I was a reporter long enough to know that looks are deceiving that beneath that surface exterior there's still enormous economic disparity between blacks and whites in Charlottesville," Feldstein said. "There's still enormous economic disparities, and that racism is more hidden than it used to be but it hasn't gone away."
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