This year marks the five year anniversary of when hundreds of neo-Nazis marched into Charlottesville to stop the city from taking down its statue of Robert E. Lee. The fatal protest left a wound on the city, and its residents are still trying to heal.

Five years on, Charlottesville Tomorrow talked to Black Charlottesville residents about how that event shaped their lives, and altered the course of their city. 

The rally astonished many people. But for these seven, the day merely mirrored the Charlottesville, and the nation, that they are accustomed to.

This is what they said:

Please note that some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Myra Anderson

A woman in a pink shirt and glasses poses for a picture in a parking lot in front of a small tree.
Myra Anderson

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

I was headed downtown. That summer I had a teenager that was staying with me. We had decided the day before that we were going to go participate in the rally. We were running a bit late. While driving, [the teenage girl’s] mother called, and she’s like, “Where are you?” And I was like, “We’re heading downtown now.” And she was like, “Turn the car around, turn the car around!” So I stopped and pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. She didn’t say why, and just told us to listen to her. It wasn’t until I got home 15 to 20 minutes later that I realized that Heyer was killed. 

It was a sick feeling. I felt like my stomach dropped. It almost felt so real. Like, I wasn’t that far from there. And at this point, I’m seeing images all over social media, right? And it’s just crazy. Like, it just felt so real.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

It really didn’t shape my perspective of the city in any way that has been positive, because I feel like it’s been the Charlottesville I’ve known, the Charlottesville that my mother and my grandmother has told me about. I’ve grown up here. The stories my mother used to tell me when she was a little girl, five years old, walking downtown with her grandmother and that white men would come up and spit on them and do all these things right on the Downtown Mall. She said she would tell the police and the police wouldn’t do nothing.

One of the biggest things that I heard repeatedly from a lot of the activists that were on the ground that day was that they were going up to the police and trying to get help and the police wouldn’t help them. I thought about that immediately. It’s the same story that I heard from my mom. So there seems to be a personal parallel to me as I heard that and I’ll always remember that. 

So it’s never really been a Charlottesville that I feel safe in, or even one that I feel is not really embedded in racism. On that day, it just so happened to rear its ugly head. But I think some of the same organizations and institutions that denounced all that racism and violence five years ago have remained comfortable and complicit in not passing any type of anti-racist policy in your organizations, and it’s five years later now.

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

I can’t speak for the whole community, but one thing that has been a bit promising to me is that I’ve seen the emergence of Black-led organizations really taking ownership of our communities and really trying to put things down for our people. That’s been really hopeful. 

On the other end of that, when you look, historically, those Black-run organizations, serving Black people, are historically underfunded. Nevertheless, I’ve been excited about that. I see my role as an advocate and an activist is, on one hand, to be challenging some of these systems to do better and to really try to break down and dismantle some of the structures that aren’t working for Black people. But at the same time, these systems are going to take a long time to do that. So simultaneously, we have to be pushing our own things into our own communities by way of services, and support and understanding. And culturally speaking, we may not do it the traditional way that mainstream society is doing.

Melvin Grady, 54

A man in a light blue t-shirt poses for a picture on the porch of a grey house.
Melvin Grady

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

I was at home. I saw it on CNN. I didn’t know how wild it’ll be, it was crazy. It shook me, but not because I was scared but because it was Charlottesville. I’m born and raised here, that’s not Charlottesville.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

I’m not naive, but that just woke me up to where people’s mindset were. Now five years later, I’m always on guard, watching and always trying to be aware of what’s going on. But I feel like it won’t happen again.

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

I don’t feel threatened by anybody. I can see tensions getting worse as we inch closer to 2024, so we’re going to have to do something to quell these crazies a bit. It’s going to get real crazy, but I’m not worried. I’m just aware.

Mary Coleman, 59

A woman in a turquoise shirt speaks into a microphone.
Mary Coleman, executive director of City of Promise, was among four panelists at a Unity Days event on early education at Vinegar Hill Theater on Aug. 10, 2019.

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

We lived in Madison County at the time, but we holed up in our basement as a family on the day of the Unite the Right rally. One of my daughters lived on Park Street and I said, “Get out of Charlottesville.”

We literally watched it all unfold on the news from my basement. I sensed that there was danger on the horizon, and the fact that President Donald Trump emboldened them was not going to be a good outcome. Ever since the 2016 election, I felt like America was going backwards. Never in my lifetime did I think I would see the KKK, or torch bearers walking through any American city with such boldness. 

I wasn’t surprised that it happened here. I’m from Ohio, so the South is a little bit bizarre to me. I think I was surprised at the level of organization and boldness. It was just so weird seeing a city that we were so familiar with on national news being defaced and all the anger and violence wrapped into a giant scene.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

I appreciate the fact there’s more awareness of the issues, such as how people in Charlottesville face inequity, the story of Vinegar Hill, housing, and just all the issues that Mayor Nikuyah Walker was trying to bring to light. Over the years, I think the consciousness of the city has developed. And I appreciate that. 

For me, as a Black woman, I think I can feel more confident in myself. Because I feel like I’m walking around a town where people are more awake than they were five years ago. Yeah. I mean, I don’t necessarily think that a Black Lives Matter sign necessarily has a lot of meaning, per se, but there’s a million of them. It’s comforting on one hand, but on the other hand, there’s plenty of work to do.

I think that I have really great conversations with white people who want to make a difference. And that’s part of my job [as the director at City of Promise] is to inspire people around the issues that our community faces, and get them to care. And that caring, you know, for the most part is, is getting money to help support the work that we do. And so those conversations are all very positive. I feel like in the nonprofit space, there’s a big push to equity, centering Black voices, centering people with lived experience.

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

I would say there is more awareness. Maybe because I work in education, but policies, practices and behaviors have changed. I would say that overall in the country, not just in Charlottesville, Trumpism has awakened many more people into how systemic racism is and the long lasting impact of marginalization through the centuries. 

The Rev. Alvin Edwards, 70

A man in a suit and glasses poses for a professional headshot.
The Rev. Alvin Edwards

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

We had planned, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, a counter protest to be down there shouting back at the statue protestors. We tried to hit it on three fronts. We tried to hit it in terms of doing something else. We tried to hit it directly. We tried to hit it with prayer with people at the First Methodist praying downtown. So people had different ways of approaching. Some of us thought maybe we shouldn’t do it at all, and then some of us thought that let’s hit it from every angle we could. And that was kind of the way we went in.

It was challenging with the emotions. I was saying, you know, is this what we’ve come to now? I kept wondering: Why would they pick Charlottesville to have that kind of rally? You think you’re further down the road than you really are. And with the people and where they were with the whole race situation, what you discover is that they’re not as far down the road as you thought.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

I don’t know if I’d say it changed, but it reminds me of the ugly monsters. There’s just different people who still need to work out their issues. I would probably say that for both sides of the fence. I think as a community there are things we could put our energy into, things that can really make a difference. I often wonder how we can waste our energy and time with stuff like the Unite the Right rally.

I mean, people did come out to protest the statute protestors. One young lady lost her life and a number of people got hurt. Could we have done something better with the time, energy and effort?

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

I don’t think things have changed in my church. I’m not sure other than it may have heightened our sensitivity. 

Crystal Johnson, 40

A woman poses for a selfie in a car.
Crystal Johnson

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

I, and a girlfriend of mine, went downtown to the rally. I was there when Heather Heyer got hit. I kind of feel like, as Black people, it is important for us to show up. Like in Charlottesville, not nearly enough times, we don’t show up when there are rallies or when other things are happening. I think it was important to have someone show up.

It was more chaotic than I was expecting it to be. I didn’t see Heather get hit. We were just marching down the middle of the street, and all of a sudden you hear like this big crash and then you see a shoe in the air. All of a sudden, the crowd went crazy for a little bit to see what was going on. We saw her on the stretcher and getting put into the ambulance. You just have so much adrenaline and you’re kind of just like, oh my God, what happened? Like you can’t believe this happened.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

I would say it hasn’t changed at all. I don’t feel like just because August 12 happened or whatever, I don’t feel like anything has changed in Charlottesville. Like Charlottesville has always, you know, had race issues. I’m always saying it’s just been, like, simmering on the back of the stove. I think Charlottesville will always have issues. There are people who are working diligently to try to get things changed and done. But, you know, I feel like we’ve always had issues and probably always will.

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

We still have the same issues that we had before they came. We still have the same big issues with Black people in Charlottesville. Housing is still a huge issue. I think there were white people who were like, “Oh, this happened, oh my God, we’re gonna throw money into the community.” And I think the money has reached the community in some aspects, in some ways, but Black people are still struggling. I’m sure if you went to Westhaven and asked them, they wouldn’t feel like there were any big changes there. They will feel like they are in the same place they were five years ago.

William Scott, 67

A man wearing glasses and a gold cross necklace stands outside a yellow house smiling at the camera.
William Scott

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

Where was I? I probably was at home. I wasn’t down there. 

I think people have a right to protest, but I’m also thinking we’re going backwards in time. But there’s nothing new under the sun. So everything that goes around is going to come back around again, years later. Trust me, another 50 to 100 years, we’ll go through this again. I kind of believe it because we have not, as Black folks, we have not made progress and they not going to let us either. And for the most part, we not going to let us.

My whole thought with the statue was, okay, you don’t like the statue? Don’t go down there where it at. Yeah, man. It’s just me. A whole lot of stuff don’t affect you until you let it affect you.

I don’t even know how that came about [referencing the movement to remove Charlottesville’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee]. I know it was a high school student that brought it to the city’s attention. But then it spread like wildfire all over the nation. But then I think back, like, suppose some people go to Washington D.C. and see the Martin Luther King Jr. statute 20, 30, 40 years from now and decide that it offends them. It can happen.

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

Yeah, for the most part. I don’t get into all of that, because I don’t pay them no mind. When I was coming up, I was raised in the country. It was Black and white folks used to come to my house. And most people don’t understand it when I say we didn’t, we weren’t raised to see color. We just see people. Until they integrated school, I just knew you as a person. 

Aliyah Cotton, 25

A woman stands in front of a brick wall wearing a white shirt that says "Destroy" on the front.
Aliyah Cotton

Where were you on Aug. 12, 2017?

On the night of August 12, 2017 I was settling into bed after a long day at UVA’s marching band camp. I was doing my usual nightly scrolling of Twitter when I saw that “Charlottesville” and “UVA” were trending at #1. When I opened up the tag I was faced with surreal scenes of Nazis wielding fire as they occupied UVA’s Rotunda, the Lawn and the Black Bus Stop. I watched video after video posted by national news organizations of places I frequented almost daily; places where I’d studied, laughed, ate lunch with friends, etc. The juxtaposition was stark and jarring. I started getting texts from family members asking if I was safe and texts from friends who were closer to the rally than I was, and who could hear the Nazis chanting from their bedrooms. I remember feeling far away from my body as I tried to process the hate spewing from the mouths of all those angry men. Their faces were contorted by their chants. I remember thinking, am I safe here?

How did your life change after Aug. 12?

The days following the rallies and the car were very revealing; I could identify clearly those who believed in the reality of pain that I and other people of color endured, and those who did not. I remember talking to one of my peers about how crazy it was that literal Nazis were desecrating our Lawn, and this person laughed saying that they were just tiki torches, so what? In that moment I felt exhausted by the enormous pressure to explain why these events were painful to me and people who look like me. I walked away instead, thinking about all the explanations that would be expected from me from now on. I began forming arguments and rebuttals in my head of why my pain was real.

Do you think Charlottesville’s Black community has changed since Aug. 12?

A lot of the communities I was a part of at UVA were majority white. I remember a lot of those classmates and friends reaching out and asking how I was doing. It felt like one of the first times that my peers were considering my experiences as a Black person in America. I could feel the thought-work that my white friends were doing to try to understand what it feels like to have your entire existence protested against. I was comforted and almost surprised that they cared. I guess one silver lining of August 12 is that it made these racial tensions impossible to ignore any longer.

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Tamica Jean-Charles

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.