A Discussion with Jalane Schmidt on Charlottesville

By: Jalane Schmidt

August 24, 2017

Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville

Background: Jalane Schmidt is an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies. Her research and teaching are focused upon African diaspora religions of the Caribbean and Latin America, and particularly festivity and ritual. She teaches courses which consider the effects of colonization and the slave trade upon religious practice in the Americas. Schmidt is a Black Lives Matter activist, and on August 12, she was in Charlottesville organizing against the white supremacist Unite the Right rally. On August 18, she sat down for the following interview with the Berkley Forum.

Given your unique perspective both as a resident of Charlottesville and as a religious studies professor, what are some of the things you saw that struck you as noteworthy and perhaps had been under-told or misstated in the events of last week?

In terms of misstatement, there have been condemnations by public officials such as our very own Governor Terry McAuliffe who said, “Go home,” and “You’re not welcome here,” and, “This isn’t Virginia,” “This isn’t America.” Well, these alt-right people are home. The white supremacist organizer of this rally is from our town. He was educated at the University of Virginia (UVA). Richard Spencer, the head speaker, is also a UVA grad and lives in Virginia. A lot of these folks, they’re from right here or near the area, so they are home. This is home for them. 

Somebody said once that racism is as American as apple pie. It’s not uncharacteristic of Virginia. The notion that these white supremacists are an outside element is an egregious statement given our history, even recently, here. That doesn’t hold water for me. They are home. They’re members of our community, and they’ve had a lot of power for a very long time, which we can see in ongoing policies that support gentrification and in politicians’ and university officials’ refusal to grant the living wage to workers, many of whom are the descendants of slaves from this place, who work at our university and around our town. 

These officials, they may not be wearing white robes and that sort of thing, but they’re continuing right along with racist practices that are pushing black people out—black people can’t afford to live in the city or live in poverty because these people won’t pay them a fair wage. This is a continuing pattern, and people like Governor McAuliffe have no grounds for saying that this alt-right rally demonstrates something foreign that has invaded our community. Civil war historian Kevin Levin has made this point many times about white supremacists who gather at Confederate monuments: They’re right where they belong.

The Civil Rights Movement is frequently invoked at a rhetorical level, and yet what’s often missed is the nonviolent systems action piece. Could you say more about that? Did you see that dynamic at work here?

In the lead up to this rally, there were pastors—white pastors, probably black folks, too—who loved to quote Martin Luther King, and “peace and brotherhood,” and “let’s ban racism,” and “this is a scourge,” and all that. Yet the pastor, for instance, of the First United Methodist Church issued instructions that no one who would be participating in civil disobedience should be coming to and from the church. First United Methodist offered its church as a gathering place for prayer—it was a safe space, the entire day. The original plan was to have an early morning service there at First United Methodist, and basically to march over the park across the street in full clergy drag, as we call it—the stoles and robes and everything—and to march across the park in locked arms to block these creeps from entering the park. That was the plan. But the pastor at First United Methodist issued instructions only a day or so ahead of time that no one who is doing a civil disobedient direct action should be coming from this church.

This is the same church that had Klansmen as members. In the 1920s, the sheriff of Albemarle County, C.M. Thomas, was a member, and his funeral was held there in 1921 or 1922. He received laudatory eulogies there: “A fine Christian man.” So, in other words, First United Methodist had never repented their sin of supporting, colluding, using, and failing to call out white supremacy and even the Klan, and, yet, they don’t want us to be coming from the church to exercise civil disobedience against these elements.

You said something very interesting in a news story where you contested the dominant narrative of race in Charlottesville’s history as wrong. Can you elaborate on that?

At the time of the Civil War in Charlottesville, 52 percent, that is, the outright majority of the combined population of Charlottesville and Albemarle County—the place where Jefferson’s Monticello is located—were enslaved; 14,000 people were enslaved. Another 600 were free blacks, and they were pressed into service of the Confederacy by pain of whipping. Or enslaved draftees’ masters were fined if their conscripted slaves didn’t report for duty at the courthouse in order to do various tasks to prepare the Confederates for their war efforts to defend the city.

The dominant narrative that has circulated about Charlottesville at the time of the Civil War has been that, fortunately, Charlottesville was able to avoid the sort of looting and burning which devastated, for instance, Richmond or Atlanta or which levelled Virginia Military Institute or the University of Mississippi. Fortunately the university was unscathed, says this common narrative. Monticello was unscathed. There was not massive burning and looting there. The Union troops did blow up a railway supply line, and they did burn down a Confederate uniform factory, but other than that, the city of Charlottesville was relatively unscathed because of a gentlemanly surrender, if you will. You do all things genteelly in Virginia.

But what was obscured was the fact that the outright majority of our local residents were enslaved. And yet, we have these huge Confederate monuments which dominate our public spaces. One would think that it was the Confederacy that won the war, and I think that would be the point in putting them up in the 1920s when these statues were installed, just kind of a wounded pride on the part of Southern whites, a sort of a consolation prize, if you will. Meanwhile, the only public marker of the local enslaved majority is a small plaque. It is one foot by one foot. It is flush with the ground, installed in the sidewalk, and it’s the site of the former slave auction block. That’s it. And it is directly across the street from the courthouse, the courthouse which had a whipping post for slaves that got “uppity” or ran away, and also a gallows.

That slave auction block plaque is in the same courthouse square where there is a statue of Stonewall Jackson, which was installed in 1921. The statues’ installation was part and parcel of the construction of Jim Crow and the segregation of public places. It was a warning to black people who might approach the courthouse seeking legal redress that they were not going to get fair treatment, that they were second-class citizens. It’s worth noting that General Stonewall Jackson only came to town once, and that was in 1863 in his funeral car. He was dead, just traveling through to the grave. That was the only time he ever came to town. General Lee, the other big Confederate monument, never came to town. Charlottesville was not a significant theater of the war. Clearly this is what we say when we get faced with the argument, “You’re just trying to airbrush history. You’re trying to do revision of history.” I say, “No. These monuments were installed in the 1920s, and they were revisionist history from the moment they were installed.”

The dominant narrative is trying to challenge our true history, which is that the fact that the majority of local residents were elated when Generals Custer and Sheridan arrived. In fact, the surrender was negotiated from the site of what is now the UVA chapel on UVA grounds, just across from the university president’s house. I dug up the accounts of slaves in Charlottesville and Albemarle County when they were liberated on March 3, 1865, and the accounts were beautiful. In one, a Union soldier recalled that an enslaved woman who has just been liberated baked up a mess of biscuits for them, gave it to them, and the soldiers were so grateful. In another account, the soldiers shared their army rations with slaves who just ate them up and said that they hadn’t eaten that well in years. This is nineteenth-century army rations. Can you imagine how horrible those must have tasted? But it was the best the slaves had eaten in years. In another account, a slave poignantly said, “I prayed and I prayed for you to arrive, and now you’s here. Glory to God.”

That is the narrative that deserves to be lauded and told. That’s the narrative of the majority of residents of our area, not these monuments of these Confederate generals that never even came to town.

In that effort to revive the narrative, I proposed the idea—and the city council passed unanimously a resolution—to recognize forthwith March 3 as Liberation and Emancipation Day, which marked the arrival of Union forces. So rather than marking this day as the surrender or the loss of Charlottesville or defeat, we’re saying, "No, this is a victory for human freedom." And all people rightly can celebrate human freedom, no matter if your ancestors fought for the Confederacy or were slave holders. Human freedom is a universal value. We should celebrate any time someone is liberated. We had our first celebration this year on March 3. The church bells were ringing at the UVA chapel, the very site of the surrender.

Going back to King, I was recently rereading "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." He talks about these four components of any successful nonviolent direct action campaign. It was direct action. It was negotiation. It was surveying injustice because injustice is always contextual. But then there’s this fourth one which nobody talks about, which he called the self-purification. Today we might call it self-care. How do you sustain a community in the face of oppression? Given your work and given the number of organizations you were working with on the ground, had the events of the last week caused you to think more about what does it take to spiritually, psychically, and politically to sustain a movement, a nonviolent campaign?

In the lead up to this event of August 12—and if I could just backdate a little bit, the lead up to the Klan rally on July 8—the city and the university were advising everyone to stay at home, stay away, just ignore them. That was literally what they said: “Ignore them. You’re just giving them attention.” We said, "No, we will not let these white supremacists organize and take over our public spaces uncontested." That’s unacceptable on every level—morally, politically. There wasn’t as broad a coalition then on July 8 when the KKK came. There were some religious folks that were involved, but they weren’t doing nonviolent direct action. But in the lead up to August 12, it was very different. It was all hands on deck. People got the proverbial memo. People were organizing. Some of the pastors got together twice a day to go to that park and pray over it. They were doing that in preparation. There were all these different church folk that were involved in nonviolent direct action training. We had people, you know, some national figures coming in to help to train us to get ready to fortify ourselves.

I think so much focused on the intensity of the buildup to the day itself. Now, when binding our wounds and trying to figure out what happened and how to hold people accountable, we do need to think more about precisely how to sustain the movement. For instance, we have issues coming up of gentrification and other things that we need to attend to and be just as mobilized for that as we had been for this. We’ve gotten into the practice now of showing up at city council meetings and speaking our minds, and having our own press conferences outside of city hall, the police station, and other public spaces. “You do not dominate public spaces, you officials,” we’re saying, “whether you’re police or you’re city council members or whatever. We, the people, have something to say, too, and we will say it from these very public spaces and from which you’re claiming to be representing and serving us.”

We definitely need to build on this and go forward because those of us in the activist community know that August 12 is just the most visible manifestation of white supremacy. The true struggle, the true war, is the ongoing white supremacy of every day: the 80 percent stop-and-frisk rate—you know, 80 percent of the police’s stop-and-frisk rate or warrantless searches are of African-Americans, even though we constitute only 19 percent of the population. Or the excess force that’s been used against black folks. Or gentrification that’s increasingly pushing black people outside town. As I mentioned before, black people used to be the majority. But with the construction of Jim Crow and then more recently the gentrification, more and more black folks are being pushed out of town, out of their homes, and that goes hand in hand with the living wage problem. So we need to organize against everyday white supremacy, which, to white folks, is not as apparent or obvious as a bunch of Klan members or Nazis gathering in our spaces. It’s the ongoing supremacy that needs confrontation with just as much vigor and vehemence as we met the Nazis within our park.

What impact will the last week have on your teaching? Your day job, as you put it, is that you are a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. What do you think the enduring or even sort of the immediate impact will be on you as a teacher in your classroom?

Well, I will continue teaching what I’ve been teaching, which is about race and religion. In the past three years, I’ve also started doing classes on critical whiteness studies, on whiteness and religion. So I’m already doing this work.

I wish that more of my white colleagues would also take up this task because it cannot be the job always of people of color to fight white supremacy. White people created white supremacy. White people benefit from it. It’s up to white people to get involved in the struggle to dismantle it.

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