These Are the Locals Who Get The Story of Charlottesville Right

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the center of Emancipation Park the day after the Unite the Right rally on August 13. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last Saturday evening, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas held a press conference about the events that day that unfolded under his watch “We love our city,” he said in conclusion. “Let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.”

I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I attended and graduated from its public schools; I still live in the city and call it home. After a weekend in which the national media descended upon our downtown and broadcast the unfolding story with the nuance of a parade of elephants, Thomas’s sentiment was welcome. Aside from being heartbroken and outraged, I was tired. Tired of talking heads calling our town Charlotte, of “The South” appearing in print as some strange monolithic mystery region somewhere below Philadelphia, of factual errors confusing the city with adjacent poor and rural counties, of accusing fingers pointed without question at the police and the local government, of former UVA students who spent all of four years here weighing in as if experts, of a lack of context, a lack of understanding of the city as a specific place with a specific history at a specific moment in time.

There are degrees of knowing: I saw it on Twitter. My friend’s cousin was there. My friend was there. I was there. I lived there. I still live there. And then there is the knowing of I live there and have been reporting on policing or race or monuments or public space since before you realized Charlotte and Charlottesville were two different cities. What happened over the weekend was devastating and appalling, the implications for the country are profound, and the President’s response was sickening. National reporters did a great deal of good work reporting on the events and their reverberations. But it was the local reporters who told it best.

Here we highlight the work of some of those people who have covered Charlottesville news for years, being paid as little as 15 cents a word, seeking no glory in fancy bylines — the local and regional writers and reporters who are, and have been, doing the hard work of trying to know and understand and tell the complicated, ongoing, and ever-changing story of their own community.

1. The First-Responders: Sean Tubbs, Dean Seal,  Lauren Berg, Chris Suarez, Brian McKenzie, Allison Wrabel, Michael Bragg, Tim Dodson, Emily Gorcenski

Tubbs, who works for the nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow, is the reporter who goes to every City Council meeting, every Board of Supervisors meeting, every Planning Commission meeting, every Board of Architectural Review, all the while bartending on the He dutifully tweets what he finds before he writes it up. It was no different this weekend. His work is usually not sexy but it’s crucial for knowing the nuts and bolts of local politics. Seal, Berg, Suarez, McKenzie, Wrabel, and Bragg, all great reporters for the Daily Progress. Gorcenski, a local activist, all had active and informative feeds this weekend and before. Dodson, a Charlottesville native, is the managing editor of the UVA newspaper The Cavalier Daily, and an intern for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

2. The Professor: John Edwin Mason, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia

Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at UVA, is an avid Twitter user, who dominates his feed with who dominates his feed with southern, Appalachian, African-American, local, and photographic history. (He is writing a book about the African-American photojournalist Gordon Parks) Mason is a regular presence at City Council meetings and was a member of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. He also frequently blends history with current events on his blog. In the post “This Is Not a Lynch Mob: Charlottesville and the KKK,” he writes:

The Klan has been on my mind, lately. Partly, because it plans to hold a rally in Charlottesville tomorrow, July 8. And, even more, because I attended a press conference at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society, yesterday, at which it briefly displayed some of the Klan robes in its collection locally for the first time… It’s one thing…to encounter the Klan in old books and newspapers. It’s another thing entirely to confront physical objects that were worn by particular Klan members in this particular city, which is my home. The robes undoubtedly still contain traces of their owners — sweat, body oil, tiny hairs, fragments of skin… Some of this surely remains embedded in the cloth. There’s the evidence, too, of the care that someone took in cutting, sewing, and fitting the robes. Inevitably, also, the robes mimic the shape of a man.”

3. The Reporter: Jordy Yager, freelance journlaist

In this profile of Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas for C-Ville Weekly, Yager sets out some of the institutional challenges Thomas faces within his department, and the issues faced by the town’s first African-American chief as he tries to improve the police’s relationship with the African-American community.

”What do rookie police officers know how to do? What are they really good at?” said Thomas. “Writing tickets. Because we’ve been trained to do that.” Rookie police officers don’t yet fully understand discretion, he said. “What’s an experienced officer likely to do–if it’s a decent interaction? They give you a break. Why is that? Because they understand the value in using that discretion, because they may need you at some point. They understand we need the community more than the community needs us.”

4. The Virginian: Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of the Encyclopedia Virginia 

Wolfe knows his Virginia history like a pro, and is also a beautiful, thoughtful writer. In this insightful and deeply knowledgeable essay about the history of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument, he grapples with the question: “What would it take for people to know their history?”

“Here’s what I think people don’t get,” my colleague Peter said as he moved his camera and tripod around the park, taking 360-degree photographs. “They don’t get why they didn’t just put up the statues right after the war. I mean, if that’s what they’re about, why wait fifty years?”

As it happens, that very question was raised on the day of the unveiling, May 21, 1924. It was a Wednesday, but many businesses had closed for the event and at one-thirty thousands of participants paraded from the University of Virginia down Main Street to East Fifth, then to Court Square, and from there the few blocks to Lee Park. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute had come by train from Lexington and were joined by the mounted police, veterans of all ages, as well as the usual state and local dignitaries—the mayor, the governor, the president of the university. Once they all had arranged themselves around the draped general, and after various introductions, the Reverend Dr. M. Ashby Jones finally cleared his throat and began his address.

“It has been nearly sixty years since the close of the Civil War,” he said. The din of battle has subsided, wounds have healed. And yet even now “there is one figure silhouetted against the background of flaming fierceness which grows larger and more distinct as the fires of war subside.” He is Robert Edward Lee, of course, whose life was one of loyalty to Virginia and therefore “deeply rooted in a social soil, pregnant with the memories and traditions, the sentiments and convictions, of past generations.”

 5. The Radio Producer: Kelley Libby, creator of “UnMonumental”

UnMonumental is a series of StoryCorps-like radio features in which Libby interviews Richmonders about their thoughts on race and the racial history of their city. Richmond, which is 65 miles east of Charlottesville and the former capital of the Confederacy, is home to the infamous Monument Avenue, the future of which is under review and a growing flashpoint of controversy. In one segment features an interview with Mayor Levar Stoney, who has already said he does not want the monuments taken down and would rather see them contextualized.

It really burns me up to see the Confederate flag, as I think it should burn up most people, but especially white southerners, we should be embarrassed of this. And I know people are cringing when they hear that sometimes, but I really truly believe that, and I think it’s a bit misguided to think it’s heritage not hate, well what heritage are you celebrating here? Because the heritage I like to celebrate is: our music, our food, our art, not a war we fought over trying to own people.

 7. The Columnist: Michael Paul Williams, Richmond Times-Dispatch

 Williams has been metro columnist for the daily Richmond newspaper for the past 35 years. In his twice-weekly column he offers his take on everything from monuments and the restoration of black cemeteries to affordable housing and public transit. He interviews widely, researches comprehensively, reports exhaustively, and brings his deep knowledge of the city to each column, without ever getting dry or wonky. Here he describes the unveiling of a new monument to the pioneering black businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker: “We talk about adding diversity to our statuary as a nod toward balancing a historical landscape dominated by outsize Confederate memorials. That conversation will not end Saturday. But you can’t visit Walker’s plaza and not yearn for more like it.”

8. The Political Correspondent: Jamelle Bouie, Slate

I hesitated to include Bouie in this list of local media because of his well-deserved national profile as Slate’s chief political correspondent. At the same time, Bouie is a UVA grad who lives in Charlottesville, and it seemed wrong not to embrace him as the local he is. When he writes about race and history, the university and the town, he brings with it the perspective of a member of the community. Here he discusses the 2015 arrest and assault of Martese Johnson, a junior at UVA, as he was trying to enter a local pub.

The assault of Martese Johnson is unusual—the kind of extreme event that rarely happens at a place as genteel and comfortable as Charlottesville. But that also makes it fitting. UVA is a school with a painful racial past. Designed by a slaveholder and built by slaves, it was one of the only educational institutions to own and use slaves. Its remembrance of that injustice is haphazard, and it’s only in recent years that it’s begun to talk openly about and commemorate the lives of enslaved people at the university, to say nothing of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, and his life of great brilliance and terrible depravity. The school lacked serious black enrollment until the 1970s, and there are still spaces in the university—like the predominantly white Greek system—that feel hostile to many black students.