Video and live streaming during the event courtesy Jonathan Stott
"Richmond is very chauvinistic about its history. The problem is, we don't really know our history."
So began Part II in Richmond magazine's three-part learning series, The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond. Historian, musician and author Gregg Kimball of the Library of Virginia, who spoke those raw words above, was one of 14 panelists who shared their historical and contemporary perspectives on race in Richmond. From public housing to public art to public schools and way beyond, the night's focus and emphasis was learning the city's lesser-known — and racially charged — history. These educators, historians and community leaders gave us perspective on just how deeply Richmond's race roots run.
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Part II of Richmond magazine's three-part learning series The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond was held Thursday, Jan. 12 at Dogtown Dance Theatre. From left: panelist Marc Cheatham, Richmond magazine arts & entertainment editor/Unmasking series co-creator Samantha Willis, panelist Ted Lewis, panelist Dr. Lauranett Lee, panelist Dr. Julian Hayter, panelist Osita Iroegbu, panelist Kristen Green, panelist Thad Williamson, panelist Tasha Chambers, panelist Dr. Gregg Kimball, panelist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, panelist Dr. John Moeser, moderator Karla Redditte, panelist Rev. Ben Campbell, Richmond magazine editorial director/associate publisher Susan Winiecki. Not pictured: panelist Free Egunfemi (Photo by Jay Paul)
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The event started with our moderator Karla Redditte asking each panelist what most astounds them about Richmond and race. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Osita Iroegbu addressed issues of housing inequality and immigrant inclusion in Richmond. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Rev. Ben Campbell shared that 90 percent of jobs in the Richmond region are inaccessible by public transportation. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Moderator Karla Redditte of NBC 12 tossed out tough questions to the panelists; one that sparked heated discussion was: "Do you buy the ‘We need to keep the Confederate monuments on monument avenue to remember our history’ argument? Or do you think the city should remove them? How important is it for our public art to reflect our racial history?"
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Dr. Lauranett Lee speaks on looking at Richmond "as a museum." (Photo b Jay Paul)
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Tasha Chambers, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, dropped knowledge about black women's gains in higher education, and shared her perspective on how race can be interpreted through the lens of art. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Marc Cheatham, founder of the Cheats Movement blog, discusses the role race – and age – played in Richmond's 2016 mayoral election. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Desserts were provided by Shyndigz. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Dr. Julian Hayter of the University of Richmond said, "Every time we start talking about the monuments, it's like throwing Miracle Grow on the city's character flaws. It's the same conversation over and over. It brings out the worst in Richmond. As an observer, I've been in the city six years and this conversation has changed very little." (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Photo by Jay Paul
We invite you to watch the video above and ponder the questions we posed to our panelists, which we gathered from participants in the first part of our series and from Twitter during Part II.
Here are a few standout responses from our panelists:
"What I find most astounding ... is the deep denial that I feel like many residents of Richmond – wider Virginia ... the South ... America, as it turns out – holds. I think part of the denial is not knowing our full history. ... I think the denial [stems from] not knowing the impact of that history on people here who were most affected by it, especially black people." —Kristen Green, author of "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County," a book that details her hometown's decision to close its schools rather than integrate them.
"When we think about public housing, and when it was created around 1940, it was supposedly to destroy slumlord dwelling. So, it's interesting that over the decades, it has become what it was supposed to absolve. [Public housing communities] are predominantly African-American. ... These communities were intentionally created to isolate black, low-income persons into certain parts of our city. As a result, they no longer have access to economic resources, transportation as well, food resources — we're talking about food deserts — and these are all within the city, not within the county. Why is that the case? Who allowed that to happen, and why are we still allowing that to happen today?" —Osita Iroegbu, a VCU doctoral student and former journalist who previously served as PR manager at Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and who grew up in Richmond's Hillside Court.
"Richmond is a relatively small town, you may have heard [audience laughs]. But there's a sense of possibility here ... We have a new mayor who wants to build on that, [Mayor Levar Stoney] is 100 percent committed to social justice, and I think there's going to be some stuff to be really excited about. But all of us in this room have to help it happen. And part of that means shedding the cynicism. This, 'We're Richmond, we can't do stuff like that.' We can do it. And we will do it." –Thad Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, transition director for Mayor Levar Stoney
"When I started at the Black History Museum, I got a lot of nice, friendly correspondence asking, 'Where'd you come from and how'd you get this position?' That astounds me, because black women make up 71 percent of those getting master's degrees, and more than 60 percent of those earning bachelor's degrees, and yet, I'm getting questions like, 'Where'd you come from and how'd you get this position?' The better question is, why aren't we in these positions? ... [Black women] are the front-runners in earning doctoral degrees, and master's and bachelor's [degrees] ... [but] we still are not CEOs and directors of corporations and companies. That's a problem." —Tasha Chambers, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia
"There's not a better place I feel like I could be in this moment than Richmond. I am inspired by the young people in this city. And I don't just mean the college students, who I do love, but I don't just mean the college students. I mean the students at Armstrong High School, I mean the students at Huegunot High School, that I get to see at Side by Side. If I get to listen to an 11-year-old define intersectionality, we gon' be all right." —Ted Lewis, executive director of Side by Side (formerly Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth)
"When the monuments were erected between 1890 and 1929, it was the nadir for black people, it was the lowest point. That's when people were being lynched on a daily basis. ... That's when those monuments were erected." —Dr. Lauranett Lee, public historian, educator, founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society
"Every time we start talking about Monument Avenue, it's like throwing Miracle-Gro on Richmond's character flaws." —Dr. Julian Hayter, historian, author and professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies
"I think what happens in Richmond is that we don't have enough 'living room' conversations with people who don't look like us. It surprises me how much people don't know about each other." –Marc Cheatham, writer, founder of The Cheats Movement, and director of constituent services and casework for U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine
"In 1850, a young black girl, like my daughter there, would have been on the auction block in Shockoe Bottom at the cost of $450, which, through the federal inflation calculator in 2015 would have equaled $12,803 ... for my baby." —Free Egunfemi, independent historian and founder of Untold RVA
"The whole social geography of Richmond is being changed. For so long, we've thought of Richmond as a city that had a huge out-migration of whites to the suburbs ... the suburbs represented wealth. ... What's happening [now] is that poverty is very high and concentrated in the city of Richmond. People in poverty are leaving for the suburbs ... the abundance of affordable housing now is in the older suburbs. It's not standard housing; one of the reasons the rents are lower is because it's often sub-standard." —Dr. John Moeser, scholar, author and senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement
"Describe race as a social construct? Well, OK, I'll give you my 101: It does not mean that race is not real; almost everything we do is socially constructed. What gives race its power and its meaning are the various social interactions that we attribute to race. ... There is no biological gene attributed to race. ... [But] it shapes where we live, it shapes who we love, it shapes who we mate with, it shapes who we have children with, it shapes how we vote, it shapes how we decide 'Who is us, and who is them?' " —Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, author, assistant professor of sociology at VCU and associated faculty with Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
17-year-old Henrico high school student Raven W. asked what youth could do to empower themselves in terms of race and understanding its implications. (Photo by Jay Paul)
In a soft but confident voice, 17-year-old Raven, a Henrico Public Schools student, asked the final — and perhaps most forward-thinking — question of the night: "We've heard a lot tonight about how all [race in Richmond] impact[s] the youth, college-age students and high school students. What is your advice on how we can empower the youth themselves?"
The panel advised this young woman and her peers to take their own lead. To learn from our history, but not let it hold them back. To understand why we are who we are, but strive, always, to be better people. To unmask our past, in order to move, together, into the future.
If you attended last night's event or watched the live stream, thank you. We invite you to share your feedback with us below, or here. Prepare to put Part II's learning into action at the third and final part of the Unmasking series on Feb. 9 at Dogtown Dance Theatre, featuring:
- A mini-workshop on Richmond’s generational racial trauma by Civitas Health Services
- A seminar by Yewande Austin of the Global Institute for Diversity and Change
- A “What now?” resource packet created with our community partners.
Part III is already sold out, but email our event director, Catherine Wolfe, to be added to the wait list: catherinew [at] richmag [dot] com, and check richmondmag.com/unmasking for more details soon.