A young Emma Lewis skips rope in Charlottesville’s now gone Vinegar Hill neighborhood, circa 1963. Photo by Gundars Osvalds.

An Open Letter to Dr. Wes Bellamy

These ideas were originally shared with Wes in early October 2017 in the context of public response to the Equity Package he proposed as Vice Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia and in advance of a public conversation which subsequently took place on October 10. The package includes “$4 million in support to the Black community, including direct payments to Black citizens under a certain income, investments in Black institutions as well as job training, education, etc.” In recent discussions with friends and in response to ongoing confusion within my own social circles, I have often found myself referencing the ideas in this letter. As our city enters the second half of its budget year, and with the hope of broadening and deepening this conversation, I share my thoughts here.


Dr. Bellamy,

Thank you in advance for being receptive to what is undoubtedly a wide range of input — some helpful and some not so much. I’m not entirely sure which category this falls into, and so I submit it humbly. You know a great deal more about these things than I do, but you’ve invited members of our community into the conversation and I’m grateful.

Like you, I have an imagination for Black families in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties that includes agency, equity and authority. Here, I’m using “authority” to mean something like “the freedom to write one’s own story without coercion or interference.” Something akin to liberty. This, to me, is the fundamental promise of our young nation. I appreciate the ways you’ve been publicly working on how to understand, recast and fulfill those promises through the particular lens of Charlottesville and our City Council.

My imagination for Black residents involves seven interrelated areas of focus which I believe could be addressed—or at least, begin to be addressed—through your Equity Package. It should go without saying that within each of these areas, there are people in our community far more knowledgeable than me who will hopefully be willing to spearhead parts of this effort.

Looking down Charlottesville’s Main Street from Vinegar Hill.

Place

Together, we must attend to the open wound that is Vinegar Hill and the systematic suppression of Black prosperity throughout the last century. We should do everything in our power to locate, acquire and renovate a physical, geographical area to be wholly owned by, and beholden only to, Charlottesville’s Black community. The role of local government is to do everything it can to create an environment advantageous to flourishing: expedited approvals, deregulation, zoning, licensure, etc. It’s my belief that this project should not be funded by—and therefore “thanks to”—taxpayers or outside benefactors, if possible. If there are to be local gestures toward reparation, those should be in the form of cash payouts—as you’ve suggested—to be invested by families however they may choose.

Platform

Rather than allowing your work to be part of a national or international storyline, subject to the whims of media and politicians (no offense), I believe your efforts should be eminently local. If I’ve understood you correctly, I believe there’s opportunity for a very broad base of support. I worry that there are well-intentioned people on all sides who would push you — but perhaps push you into a place of not actually getting anything done. You have a growing platform. Will it be the small and sturdy platform of the Black community here in Charlottesville, or will it be subsumed by a hazy, rancorous agenda represented at The University, and throughout the halls of power in Richmond and Washington, D.C.?

Pregnancy

This may seem strange, but I think we should be promoting a culture in which women, couples, and families are supported and we celebrate beautiful Black babies entering our community. The statistics can be discouraging, but I think Black flourishing starts with care for the pre-born and the mothers who carry them. What can the city do to help assure pregnant women that their children have a home here?

Pedagogy

This is an area in which you’re way ahead of me, of course. We must be committed to the early childhood development of young Black boys and girls. Many in our community have helped me see the tremendous deficiencies in our government schools — particularly for Black pupils. What does a reimagined school look like in Charlottesville’s Black community? How can we reboot an entirely new approach and shed the lackluster efforts of previous generations?

Policing

I believe, particularly in the wake of this summer’s events, there’s an unprecedented opportunity for a Black neighborhood to reconstitute its relationship with local and state police. If residents of the Glenmore neighborhood have their own private security and officers of the government have to come in and out through a gate, I see no reason why the same can’t be true of a Black-owned and developed neighborhood. I won’t pretend to know what’s needed in this area, but I trust Black households to designate how their tax dollars are used in aspects of policing specific to their streets, homes and businesses.

Penal System

Likewise, there are federal and state conversations that should be happening, but I’d love for our community to organize against the broken parts of our local judiciary, from minimum sentencing to the death penalty. To the extent that Charlottesville can be a model in fixing the prejudices and failings of the American penal system, we should be.

Permaculture

Another one that might seem odd. I believe there are tremendous opportunities in our local market that Black entrepreneurs are poised to capitalize on. If a new neighborhood is being imagined, let’s incorporate the necessary infrastructure for nutrient-dense and soil-building foods that are also immensely profitable. I may be overly optimistic, but I think integrating food supply and related land-use enterprises into the community from the onset would help support many of these other areas of focus. The production of good food nourishes mothers and students, creates jobs, encourages entrepreneurialism and establishes deep roots in this place—literally and figuratively. Let’s get Chris Newman back down here to share his vision for food, farming and healing in Charlottesville.


Like it or not, “Charlottesville” has become a national shorthand for racial strife in the age of Trump. Let’s use this cultural moment to do something radically local that involves our entire community and learns from generations of failed policies. My modest skills as a designer are at your disposal. You’ve been given an extraordinary position from which to begin to right a very old wrong—and we are with you.

Respectfully.