Charlottesville, Va., Feb. 4, 2016 – Students from St. Anne’s-Belfield School’s Issues of Race, Gender, and Social Justice course made headlines this week when they petitioned the Charlottesville City Council for greater recognition of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, one of the city’s historic communities, and received a standing ovation in the process.
The current marker on Water Street is a small plaque, obscured by both a floral planter and a trash receptacle. In the short-term the students would like to see these objects moved from in front of the sign, while in the long-term they would like an interpretive sign put in place to better educate the public on Charlottesville’s history.
“In our studies, we found that there is so much more to the story of Vinegar Hill that needs to be shared. The current sign does not adequately depict the importance and vibrancy of this community,” said course participant Olivia Vande Woude ‘16.
“Considering that the plaque states that it is ‘a lost neighborhood,’ it is wrong that the sign in of itself is lost; it is poorly placed, barely visible, and exists behind a garbage can.”
The Issues of Race, Gender, and Social Justice course was an “Intensive” at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, offered through an Upper School program that halts the core curriculum during the three weeks separating the school’s Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks. Instead, students are able to deeply explore a single topic of academic merit. This particular course was open only to juniors and seniors, and was taught by Ms. Robertson, Mr. Shoup, and Mr. Iturbe. Students created the online petition after the course had finished, and it garnered more than 500 signatures in five days.
The petition explains: “Established in the 1800s, Vinegar Hill was the center of the African American community after the Civil War. Between the 1920s and 1960s, it served as a business district and residential area for the Charlottesville African American community. However, in the 1960s, all 20 acres of Vinegar Hill were deemed ‘substandard,’ and the town voted to redevelop the neighborhood through the Urban Renewal program. With the initiation of the Poll Tax, many African American residents of Vinegar Hill were not able to vote on the matter. Subsequently, 500 people, including 158 families, 140 of which were African American, were displaced and moved to Westhaven Public Housing.”
For many students the course was the first time they had heard of the history of Vinegar Hill, but for John Woodson ’16 the story was personal – his grandmother had been a resident.
On February 1 the students took their petition to Charlottesville City Council, where they received a standing ovation from assembled citizens.
“Age, seniority in local or national government, and formal leadership titles are by no means necessary to stimulate social change,” Vande Woude says of the petition process. “We are just a group of high school students who saw a need and responded.”
The petition is online at https://www.change.org/p/charlottesville-city-council-charlottesville-citizens-justice-for-vinegar-hill