White supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia and ugly displays of hate sent ripples of revulsion across the nation. But Lisa Woolfork wasn’t surprised.

The problems in Charlottesville do not begin and end with the white supremacists who  wrecked havoc in 2017.

Woolfork, a Black Lives Matters leader and University of Virginia associate professor, said the rallies show the simmering racism lying under the quaint surface of Charlottesville.

“Folks need to understand that Charlottesville might have been a shocking and surprising event nationally, but white supremacy has long had and continues to have a tight grip on this city,” she told USA TODAY.

White supremacy isn’t a problem just in Charlottesville. It simmers in communities across the country. But it resonates louder here of late. On Monday, the self-avowed Neo-Nazi James Fields will be sentenced in state court for the murder of a bystander during the “Unite the Right” rally. Fields has already been sentenced to life in federal court. 

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Woolfork and other activists say Charlottesville is still far from resolution on matters of race. 

From the Virginia colony’s founding in 1607 until today, white supremacy has festered in the city’s bones. Racism at one time or another has lived in its leaders, its laws, its citizens and its institutions – even in UVA’s hospital, which was a center for the eugenics movement.

During the Civil War, 500 of the 600 students enrolled at UVA would serve as confederate soldiers. And decades later in 1924, in celebration of the city’s new Robert E. Lee statue, the Ku Klux Klan paraded in the streets and burned crosses near African American churches. Their efforts to intimidate the African American community continued in the years following. 

For decades racism has manifested itself systemically through unequal housing and gentrification, racial imbalance in arrests and education segregation.

Some of the troubled stories:

  • 1960s: The city’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood, an epicenter of African American economy and culture, was torn down and left a void in the fabric of the community that lasted decades after is demolition.
  • 2015: Photos of underage UVA student Martese Johnson‘s bloody arrest by beverage control officers went viral under #JusticeforMartese, sparking a national conversation about race and policing.
  • 2019: In March, a 17-year-old was arrested after making a racially charged threat that closed nine area schools for multiple days.

White supremacy in Charlottesville operates like carbon monoxide, Woolfork said, not always visible but toxic.

“Some of the issues we were dealing with in the 1950s are the same issues we are dealing with in 2019 and 2020,” said Charlene Green, manager of the city of Charlottesville’s office of human rights.

Janette Martin, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP branch, said that confronting the truth is key to Charlottesville’s future.

The nation has taken a hard look.

Charlottesville has received constant attention from the media, activists and politicians since August 2017.

Joe Biden even couched his presidential campaign announcement in the events that occurred there, quoting from the Declaration of Independence: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

He added: “We’ve heard it so often it’s almost a cliche, but it’s who we are. We haven’t always lived up to these ideals. Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.”

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in the car attack in Charlottesville, said she thinks that seeing what happened probably helped push some people to take action.

“I would say that sort of a red flag went up; like, ‘maybe we better pay attention to this,'” said Martin.

Larry Sabato, director of the UVA center for politics, told USA TODAY that there’s no easy answer to the question of whether Charlottesville has made civil rights progress since August 2017. It depends on who you ask, he says.

“If you’re measuring change on a broader scale, there are positive signs,” he said. “And discouraging aspects, too, such as the difficulty in doing something about the enormous gulf between rich and poor – and not just here.”

The community and local government have taken steps to make changes in the community.

But those changes aren’t all new. The internal battle between activists and racism has raged on for just as long as injustices have been present.

In 1920, three African American women in Charlottesville succeeded in registering to vote. In 1968 African American students organized Black Students for Freedom, a premature version of the Black Students Alliance. In 1972 Charlottesville elected its first African American mayor, Charles Barbour. And in 2008, the Charlottesville City Council identified that it needed to work to improve race relations and diversity.

Since August 2017, city organizations, activists, local government and citizens have worked together to continue moving forward. Among the newer initiatives are:

  • Unity Days: Created by the city and local community members, Unity Days aims to help the community through events that “educate, inspire, and honor people in our community in order to move towards economic and racial justice,” according to its site. It is in its inaugural year. 
  • Proposed changes:  Nikuyah Walker, first female African American mayor of Charlottesville, has also proposed changes such as removing Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday. Instead, the city will recognize March 3, Liberation and Freedom Day, as a holiday. 

But with progress comes pushback. “It feels to me that the resistance side is very strong,” she said.

There are many people, Woolfork, Martin and Bro said, who don’t want things to change.

“Charlottesville antiracist activists continue to grapple against others’ inertia and retrenchment,” Woolfork said. “The racist confederate monuments continue to dominate our public spaces.”

The story of Charlottesville is not one of turning over a new leaf, Woolfork said.

She said that while it is important to acknowledge progress there is still work to be done. Charlottesville’s history of racist policies is long, she said.

“It’s going to take longer than two years to undo them.”

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