This week’s celebration of Charlottesville’s 250th birthday shone a spotlight on the 1964 demolition of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
“What has never been the same since that time has been the economic footprint African-Americans had,” said former City Councilor Holly Edwards in a film screened Tuesday before a packed house in City Council chambers.
Edwards and others appeared in the 2010 short documentary “That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town,” which tells the history of the neighborhood and its importance to those who were displaced.
“ Vinegar Hill was the center of the African-American community,” said Scot French, one of the film’s producers. “After the Civil War , you have a very large population of formerly enslaved people looking for places to live and looking for places of employment.”
French, who spent many years as a historian at the University of Virginia, said Booker T. Washington encouraged former slaves to empower themselves by becoming business owners.
“People living in and around Vinegar Hill needed services,” French said. “They needed groceries. They needed laundries. They needed insurance. A whole dual economic system emerges here with African-Americans providing services to the black community.”
However, French said many residents defaulted on loans during the Great Depression. Their houses were bought by others and then rented back to them. At that point, many became dilapidated because the new owners did not keep up the maintenance.
“Some of the buildings were described as almost falling over,” French said.
French said many white business owners in the downtown area viewed the businesses on Vinegar Hill as a threat.
“In the South particularly, urban renewal was a tool for reengineering the landscape and moving African-Americans out of areas where they had been fairly deeply rooted,” French said.
“I wonder how many people understand how big that whole urban renewal was,” said Joy Johnson, director of the Public Housing Association of Residents. “It wasn’t just houses. It was people’s businesses. It was people’s livelihoods. It was their wealth.”
The 20-minute film also tells the story of what happened to some Vinegar Hill residents after the demolition.
“The African-American families that lived in these properties couldn’t simply go to another neighborhood in town and buy a house there,” said Lance Warren, another of the filmmakers. “Being displaced from this community quite often meant being displaced from Charlottesville.”
Federal law required anyone displaced by urban renewal to be provided with somewhere else to live. That led to the creation of public housing run by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
However, Edwards said public housing made it hard for its residents to acquire wealth through property ownership.
“[In public housing], when someone passes away, the child’s name is not on the lease and it’s not like you can leave a public housing apartment to your next of kin, because you don’t own it,” Edwards said.
For others, the razing of Vinegar Hill left an empty space where they had grown up.
“Our memories are fond because this is all I know about my childhood,” said Kathy Johnson Harris, whose family was the last to leave Vinegar Hill.
The film will be shown on WVPT on July 1 and other Virginia public television stations later this summer. DVDs of the film are also for sale for $10 a copy. All proceeds will go to the Jefferson School City Center .