Recently, the world watched racist whites descend on the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday morning proclaiming to want to save their heritage. Wielding tiki torches, wearing police-style riot gear, and proudly displaying various racist banners, these individuals showed up to protest the removal of a statue to the Confederate General Robert Lee. While most people were taken aback by such a public display of vile hatred, another more low-key display of racism showed up in Charlottesville back in 1965.
At that time, the city had a small enclave where Black families thrived known as Vinegar Hill. This little area was home to a school, insurance agencies, restaurants, clothing and drug stores, a barber shop, a fish market, a tailor, a popular jazz nightclub, and several other essential businesses. While suffering under the oppression of Jim Crow era laws, Vinegar Hill was a thriving Black community that served as a hub for Charlottesville’s Black social life.
While stories differ on how the area got its name, the most widely known one says it was when a vinegar keg fell off a horse cart and left a pungent odor in the air. After the American Civil War, former slaves began to settle in the area with the hopes that home ownership would guarantee progress for them and their families.
Under the guise of an urban renewal project, the city of Charlottesville voted to bulldoze the Vinegar Hill enclave and destroy 140 Black families’ homes, 30 Black-owned businesses, and a church. The city then imposed an exorbitant poll tax, which kept many Black families from voting on what happened with their homes.
Vinegar Hill comprised about 20-acres of land in the city and became valuable property after Charlottesville saw an economic boom in 1954. In order to gain control of the land, the city council formed a new housing authority agency, which passed a measure that allowed “unsanitary and unsafe” houses to be taken over by the housing agency. At the time, a white resident of Charlottesville remarked, the neighborhood wasn’t “terribly beautiful, but those were good sturdy businesses.”
After the city took control of the Black families’ homes and razed the land, they then built public housing projects in order to house the displaced families that were in need. So the families went from living in single family dwellings into a smaller unit in a multi-family complex. And by 1985, the projects were deteriorating because the city didn’t maintain the public buildings they created for the families.
While initially touting the destruction of Vinegar Hill as an urban renewal project, most of the land where the thriving Black neighborhood once stood remained empty for years! The only thing to have replaced the destroyed families’ homes have been parking lots and easier traffic flow from the University of Virginia to the downtown mall area.
Click on the documentary, That World Is Gone, to view the destruction of Vinegar Hill.