Perspective: The Black Bus Stop as a Symbol of Black Expression at the University

Words by Liana Harris.

Imagine any typical space that one might see on a college campus. It could be a dormitory, a dining hall, a campus quad or even a bus stop. Next, imagine how as students, people might arbitrarily choose to hang out in any of these spaces. Perhaps the space is convenient and multi-purposeful, so it becomes a few students’ favorite place to meet up. Then, imagine if meeting up at this spot catches on among others. Sure, it might just be a popular location, or it could become some kind of tradition. Maybe this arbitrary place will develop meaning beyond the physical realm. An entire community might be built around this space. It might become so special that eventually, it has its own name. Now instead of imagining such a space, understand that it was real. It was called the Black Bus Stop.

Located outside of Monroe Hall, the BBS was the epicenter of the University’s black community from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. It was a space that had been gradually re-imagined by black students and eventually established itself as a quintessential part of the black experience at the University. It was where black people came to talk about their classes, form friendships, share gossip, listen to music, discuss politics, show off their clothes, search for relationships, and find out about parties. As a memory, this is a place that often brings joy to black alumni as they reflect upon their time at the University. To put it simply, the BBS was where many black students could be their most engaged, authentic selves.

First-year Liana Harris sits at the physical stop where the Black Bus Stop once flourished. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

I first learned about the Black Bus Stop through Black Fire, a history course taught by African-American Studies and History Prof. Claudrena Harold. This class explores the complexities of racial politics in the United States by examining the University’s own racial history. Focusing mainly on the 1990s, we have studied the Black Bus Stop not as an isolated social phenomenon but within the broader historical context of that time. It was interconnected with the era of hip-hop culture, growing afrocentricity and widespread conversations around what it means to be black in America.

My personal interest in the Black Bus Stop intersects with my own identity as a black University student, as I am fascinated by how such a space was conceived in a place that I now call home. However, the most effective way to envision the BBS, perhaps, is to observe the stories shared by the individuals who experienced it for themselves.

Jason Turner is a black alumnus from Washington, D.C. He attended the University from the fall of ‘87 to the spring of ‘91 — some years during which he says the Black Bus Stop was arguably at its peak. He graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in English and is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

“I was part of a generation in which the Black Bus Stop was the daily center of the black community at U.Va,” Turner said. “In the ‘80s the black culture at U.Va. was so strong, even as a minority. We would always say that we had an HBCU within a PWI. Imagine that.”

Class of 1991 alumnus Jason Turner. Photo from 1991 edition of Corks & Curls Yearbook.

His description of the BBS as a microcosmic historically black college in a white university encompasses the spirit of the black community during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unlike past generations, these students had a space where they could be unapologetically black within the intellectual sphere of the University. Furthermore, a key aspect of this tradition was its centrality on Grounds. Black students did not only establish this space for themselves, but they put their culture on display for the rest of the University community.

“It really felt like the heartbeat of the University, that intersection,” Turner said. “There were mainly people like myself in the College of Arts and Sciences, and then you had the Comm School right there. You had everything: the Bookstore, Newcomb, the historical Grounds right at the center of it all.” 

This open expression of blackness in such a central part of Grounds had a revolutionary impact on the University’s social traditions. Before the BBS, black student culture was in many ways separated from the mainstream University. Although there were important institutions such as the Black Student Alliance, established in 1969, and the Office of African American Affairs, established in 1976, these entities were established for definitive purposes. In contrast, the BBS happened naturally. There is no founding date, no charter members, no scheduled events. It was not planned and exerted no agenda; it was just black people hanging out together. The simplicity of its development conveys a true sense of authenticity in the black community.


Another crucial aspect of the BBS was its connection to Black Greek Life. In her class, Professor Harold explains that key developments of black social life at the University took place in the 1970s, among them the establishment of black sororities and fraternities. 

“If we think about the University of Virginia in architectural terms, then one can argue, rather convincingly, that the 1970s was the decade in which the black community’s institutional infrastructure solidified,” Harold said in one of her lectures.

The first Black Greek Letter organization at the University was Omega Psi Phi, established in 1973. That same year, the sorority Delta Sigma Theta also came to Grounds. As these and other black fraternities and sororities emerged, they became integral to the social and political life of black students. As the evolution of black social life continued in the 1980s and 1990s, the Black Bus Stop became a key part of this tradition as well.

Alumni of Kappa Alpha Psi pose in front of the BBS. Photo by Kasey Roper.

As a Kappa, Turner’s experience at the BBS was directly linked to his fraternity.

“It’d be where black folks were just chilling on the steps, you know, and where I would meet up with other members of Kappa Alpha Psi,” Turner said. “And then there were the Ivies, or the AKAs, and the Pyramids, the Deltas. We would all be out there at the same time. It was just electric.” 

“And of course it really came alive during the spring of every year, when all of the pledge classes would be on line,” Turner said. “We would line up and greet the Big Brothers as they were coming through on their way to lunch. There would be the guys from Alpha Phi Alpha up there, and they would all be greeting the Big Brothers. We would definitely want to make sure that we were the loudest, that we had the most interesting greetings.” 

This custom, as well as stepping and learning the fraternity’s songs and chants, are all distinct Black Greek traditions. The BBS made these traditions visible and brought an almost magical energy to the middle of Grounds.

Kappa Alpha Psi reunited on the Lawn this October. Photo by Kasey Roper.

Another social phenomenon from the BBS era was what students called the BET. 

“You know what that was?” Turner asked. “The Black Eating Time. That was the time between 6:00 and 7:00 when all the black folks would be at O-Hill or Newcomb Hall.” 

Just like the Black Bus Stop, the Black Eating Time was exactly what it sounds like. Again, it was an unplanned tradition that developed as black people would commonly eat together. This tradition, along with the Black Bus Stop, continued for years after Turner had graduated. However, he felt that the specific era he was a part of was special in embracing these traditions.

Eight years after Jason Turner graduated, his younger brother, Gizachew Angargeh, enrolled at the University as a first-year. Andargeh attended the University from the Fall of ’99 to the Spring of ’03, majoring in Foreign Affairs and minoring in History. He was a member of the African Union Organization, sang for Black Voices and coincidentally worked as a bus driver.

Class of 2003 alumnus Gizachew Angargeh. Photo from 2003 edition of Corks & Curls.

In terms of the BBS’s role for him as a student, “it was basically a gathering place — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, generally, you could go there and you could find a friend. It was pretty much guaranteed that you could find someone to catch up with, whether that be about class, or what happened over the weekend, or what’s going to happen that upcoming weekend.”

Andargeh also had the unique perspective of a black University Transit Service bus driver while the BBS existed. 

“As a bus driver, I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he said. “The routes have changed now, but I did what was called the Orange-Blue route and I also the Grounds Loop. Both of those routes ran through the BBS, the Orange-Blue route more regularly than the Grounds Loop. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I was running through, I was always excited about picking up or dropping students off there. I always knew I was going to see somebody I knew and dap somebody up.”

The primary purpose as a comfortable social space for black students had not changed throughout the years. However, it was also a space where young, black intellectuals engaged in conversations about current social and political issues. 

“The Cavalier Daily had a newspaper box there, and sometimes they would write some crazy stories,” Andargeh said. “Or The Boondocks was a comic in the newspaper, so sure, you would read that and be like ‘This is funny.’ Considering where we were, too, because it was about racial politics. So we would have those conversations as well.”


It is inevitable that while discussing the racial dynamics of the University, the notion of “self-segregation” comes up. This concept refers to a situation in which a particular group isolates itself from the rest of society and actively excludes all non-members. Since the University has a long, complex racial history — one in which plenty of actual racial discrimination has occurred — some students believe that the most progressive way to navigate race is to eliminate its conversation entirely. This color-blind approach towards integration vilifies institutions such as the Black Bus Stop and BET, for they are clearly tied to race.

However, it is a fundamental mistake to categorize these establishments as self-segregative. The proper description would be congregative. Congregation brings people together in a positive way. It unifies and supports people within a community, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised. It creates culture and traditions that are passed down through generations. This distinction is critical in understanding what the BBS was at its core: a place where black students could openly gather and express themselves among one another.

“It was this opportunity to create a space for congregation, and to feel comfortable in doing so,” Andargeh said. “It was never our intention to make others feel unwelcome whenever we were at the Bus Stop or BET. There was never the thought that we were doing this to make other people feel uncomfortable and far from it. We were just trying to create a space where we felt comfortable and to do so in a public space.”

Other students were not shy about their aversion to the BBS. Andargeh recalls seeing “recurring articles that someone would write every two or three years about the Black Bus Stop or BET.” This excerpt from “Taking color out of the equation,” an article from The Cavalier Daily in 2002 by Kimberly Liu, summarizes exactly what some non-black students thought about black congregation:

“It is impossible to go to the bus stop, eat in the dining hall or attend a party without noticing large groups of members of the same race together. Many minorities at the University embrace a racial solidarity that is one cause of this visible segregation. This kinship among members of the same race manifests itself in self-segregating groups and a general anti-diversity attitude.”

Liu’s article is not racist. It does not invoke any hatred against black people, nor does it intend to spark racial tension. In fact, she argues that adopting this perspective would resolve racial issues at the University. Nonetheless, her article shows that she did not understand that to black students, it was more than just a bus stop. She failed to acknowledge that this space allowed for these students to embrace their culture, even while attending a University that historically oppressed their ancestors. She could not appreciate the spirit it evoked, the joy it spread. She did not see the BBS beyond a surface level, and therefore overlooked its cultural value. In order to correct this misinterpretation, race and culture must be a part of the equation, not taken out.

“I would challenge those people to get it,” Andargeh said. “I mean what is it that U.Va. promotes anyway, if not taking ownership of your actions and wanting to create a space for yourself, however it may look?”


So where did it all go? Both of these alumni could not emphasize enough how meaningful the Black Bus Stop was to their college experiences. Their deep emotional attachment to this space made it hard for them to believe that it no longer exists, especially for Turner, who was there at its peak. 

“How could it be that something so central to my entire college experience is gone?” he asked. “There was an era of African-American experience at U.Va. that was arguably at its zenith in the ‘80s, and we didn’t know it. And we know it now only in retrospect.”

One theory that Turner mentioned was the rise of the Digital Age and social media as the cause of the BBS’s decline. Although this has made way for immense progress in terms of accessing information and connecting with people from a distance, one social consequence of being attached to technology is that people do not need to interact as much in real life anymore.

“We used to go to the BBS because that was a major point of information exchange,” Turner said. “We would meet up there and talk about what was popping off in the afternoon and evening. No one had cell phones, no email or any of that. If you wanted to have a party, we would spend all night putting up flyers around campus the night before.” 

Like his brother, Andargeh was completely disheartened to know that the BBS no longer exists. 

“So they’re there for the function of waiting for the bus?” Andargeh said. “That is so disappointing.” 

However, he recollects a specific moment that might have predicted its decline:

“There was another student who was there, he was maybe a year or two older than me, his name was Bokar Ture. And Bokar Ture, I remember, was holding it down. And this was kind of emblematic of the changing tide of what is the Black Bus Stop. I was either driving the bus or I was walking by, and it was him and probably a couple of other people out there. I remember I was like:

“What’s up Bokar man, you just hanging out here?”

“Yeah man, for tradition’s sake, you know, this the BBS.”

“I hear you bro, you hold it down man. Hold it down.”

“And that was it. That is what he was doing. He was just there. I don’t know if he had a class to go to, or if he didn’t have a class to go to, but he was like ‘I’m holding it down’ I was like “Bet.” 

“For me at that time, I didn’t see the change in what the BBS would become, which is effectively non-existent,” he said. “But maybe he did. He had that foresight. Like I’m here for a very specific purpose. You might not see the value in this purpose, but I know what it is.”


Now that it has been years since the Black Bus Stop existed in its physical form, the most obvious question one might ask is if it could ever come back. Although it is impossible to answer that question, it should be noted that the black community of the University has not forgotten about this tradition. Many students know what the BBS was; however, they might not understand the value it held in the hearts of many black alumni. Andargeh hopes that during Black Alumni Weekend in the Spring of 2021, some sort of event to commemorate the BBS will occur.

“The Black Alumni Association should coordinate something for that Friday, for those who can come down early,” Andargeh said. “That Friday at noon or 1 o’clock, just meet us at the Black Bus Stop. We’ll be at the BBS, just as a way for rekindling that spirit, you know what I mean?”

As a current student who has never experienced the BBS, I am ambivalent towards the idea of its resurgence. On one hand, the concept of re-imagining a space to create a tradition is amazing to me. There is a part of me that wishes that I could have been there to experience the BBS myself. Out of pure curiosity, I cannot help but wonder what my experience as a black student would have been like if I was here during that era. 

However, I reject the idea that some piece of my experience is missing due to the absence of the Black Bus Stop. Understanding that the BBS was an embodiment of black culture, I do not believe that this culture has been lost, but that it is now expressed differently. Every generation of black University students creates its own traditions within the social and cultural context that it exists in. Thus, we should embrace the traditions of our time and make them integral to our experience, like these alumni did with the BBS. Furthermore, a key aspect of the Black Bus Stop was its organic manifestation. Any sort of official reinstatement would take away from the essence of what it was at its core. As time passes, culture naturally evolves and so do its traditions. This is not to say that the BBS’s legacy should not be remembered, nor that black alumni do not have the right to feel disappointed by its absence; only that to assume that past times were better can undermine the value of the present.

As a tradition, it is difficult to truly understand the significance of the Black Bus Stop. The institution itself was quite simple — it was a popular space where black students congregated in the middle of Grounds. However, to truly grasp the depth of the BBS, one has to understand the incredible extent to which the black community has grown at the University. Black students could not always publicly embrace their culture. There was not always a large enough black population at the University to make its presence known. This tradition is a culmination of black social progress at the University, not just a bus stop where black students were commonly situated. It was a representation of joy and the freedom to express black culture. Even if it no longer exists in its exact physical space, its spirit and legacy will not be forgotten as the University continues to grow.

Correction made on 11/8: Bokar Ture’s name was previously published as “Bill Carr.” Jason Turner’s title of alumna was changed to alumnus. 

The Not So-Lone-Rangers: Meet Poe’s Neighbors

Words by Meagan O’Rourke. Photos by Meagan O’Rourke and Margaret Wadsworth.

Fifty-two graduate students live in the historic Range housing. Photo by Margaret Wadsworth.

If you’re only interested in a place to live, then the Range may not be a good fit for you.” 

The Range’s website warns University graduate students interested in living in one of the 52 historic Range rooms on the outside of the Lawn that the Range is not traditional prime real estate. For $7,270 per academic year, graduate students may be able to find housing with kitchens, attached bathrooms and absolute privacy, all of which the Range lacks. However, something beyond amenities attracts graduate students, to live here. For some, it is the academic space. For many, it is simply means having good neighbors. And they all have stories to share from their one-room homes. 


The Educators of East Range

Nestled between the Pavilion Gardens and the Corner, two future teachers set up their homes in August in 10 and 12 East Range. 

There has been ongoing construction around East Range, disrupting the usual quiet. Photo by Margaret Wadsworth.

Coming from Seattle, 28-year-old graduate Education student Jacob Elmore did not think that Charlottesville housing could cost as much as his home city. However, after looking at the prices of off-Grounds housing on Zillow, Elmore decided to look for a less expensive option on Grounds, and applied to live on the Range from the West Coast. He was randomly assigned to 12 East Range, but his choice to make a community there was deliberate.

“I guess what drew me was the aspect of community, and I just wanted to meet other people outside of my field, make new friends, make new relationships, and here I am,” Elmore said. 

Jacob Elmore of 12 East Range. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

For graduate Education student Molly Heck who lives two doors down in room number 10, living on the Range was a homecoming. She graduated from Notre Dame this past spring with a major in English and spent most of her upbringing in Jacksonville, Fla. However, she lived in Charlottesville when she was in kindergarten and first-grade while her father, Andy Heck, was a graduate assistant and tight ends football coach at the University from 2000 to 2003. 

Although she did not know about the Range growing up, she decided to move near the Lawn where she went trick-or-treating as a child, and she can now see it through a new lens. After studying at Notre Dame, which she said had a very strong on-campus living culture all four years, separated by gender, she is able to compare the universities’ housing traditions. 

“That was something I loved about Notre Dame, and was hoping I could find … kind of U.Va’s version of that community living,” Heck said. “And it really has been similar but different in the aspect that I live by guys because before it was only females, so that’s fun too.”

At the University, Heck also experienced living in the Copeley Hill Apartments over the summer when her Master in Teaching English program started, and can tell a difference living on the Range. 

“On the Range now, I feel so much more a part of the school itself,” Heck said.  

Molly Heck of 10 East Range. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

Also, as an educator, she draws the connections between the academics of the University and its physical space. 

“[The Range] is very reflective of the history of Virginia,” Heck said. “Also, just wanting to become a teacher, I really have an appreciation for public education, and that was Thomas Jefferson’s dream. He was the leader for public education, so living on the Range which is a product of Jefferson’s dream is really cool.” 

Elmore is not a fan of Jefferson personally, but also supports his advocacy for public education which has been so integral in his life.

Elmore struggled through his early years of education and came from a family who did not go to college. However, some transformative teachers in high school encouraged him to continue with school and he went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Now, he is completing his doctorate degree and is researching how teachers can better understand the diverse communities their students come from in order to empower students in the classroom. 

“My ultimate goal is to have a teacher in every classroom where children feel like they are being cared [for], respected, valued and that they see themselves as being capable of doing whatever they want to do,” Elmore said. 

Each Range room contains a list of the residents who lived there before. Fittingly for someone who wants to be a teacher, Heck’s list boasts the name of a prominent University professor of History who lived in the room from 1895-1896, Richard H. Dabney, who was close friends with former President Woodrow Wilson. 

Elmore’s room also was occupied by a University professor, William Echols from 1895-1896. Echols taught mathematics and lived at the University from the time he started teaching to his death. Aside from having a dorm and a scholars program named in his honor, Echols is also known for attempting to stop the Rotunda Fire of 1895 using dynamite. Though Elmore did not recognize the names on his list that those who went to the University as undergraduates may recognize. Instead, he has other high hopes for his room’s infamy.

“For my room, I don’t know how special it is,” Elmore said. “But maybe one day my goal will be like you know? Jacob Elmore lived in 12 East Range, I want to live in that room, so maybe I’ll make my stamp in that regard.”


Finding Home on the West Range

An antique grandfather clock is not usually a dorm essential, but for Julia Payne, a Batten student in the  Master’s of Public Policy program, in room Number 33, an ornate grandfather clock fills up the majority of her back wall.

“It is a fantastic clock — it’s a great piece of furniture,” Payne said. 

Julia Payne of 33 West Range, the Grandfather Clock Room. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

She did not bring it from home. The previous room Number 33 resident bestowed the clock upon Payne and her Payne take care of it. This even meant transporting the towering clock back to Payne’s home in Northern Virginia the summer before she moved in so facilities could move new furniture into her room.

Payne does not know where the clock came from initially, unsure of whether it is a century or a decade old. However, Kyle Gardiner, a School of Architecture alumnus and former Range Council president, who lived in room Number 33 from 2013 to 2016 knew exactly where the clock came from. He inherited it from Curry student Nicholas DelDotto, who Gardiner says picked it up from “god knows where” and who moved out of Number 33 in 2013. Since then, residents of 33 have passed it down and dutifully transported it during summer. 

“I think it’s an amazing testament to the tradition I think; it is a pain and people keep doing it,” Gardiner said. 

As president of the Range Council for two years, Gardiner took on an informal resident advisory role in the community and tried to foster less cumbersome traditions in the Range community like gathering in the winter, when people have a tendency to keep their doors closed. Creating communal spaces is one of his passions as an urban planning and environmental sciences graduate student. 

“I love urban planning because I think that having people mingling together is how humans thrive and it’s how ideas are created,” Gardiner said. “It’s how happiness is built. And so if that is talking at the level of a city or the level of a living community it is the same concept and that is why I always sought them out in my life.”

Payne emphasizes the ability the Range gives for people to mingle, and wishes more people knew about the openness of The Range. 

“I wish that people knew that they could interact with us, come hang out,” Payne said. “Certainly, even some of my friends have been like ‘You have to invite me to your room,’ and I’m like ‘No, you can just stop by.’” 

As an undergraduate, Payne somewhat knew about The Range from being a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society which meets on the West Range in Hotel C. Like some of her “Double Hoo” neighbors, she had an inkling she wanted to live on the Range as an undergraduate. Now, she thinks about what kind of legacy she wants to leave behind after her completing her master’s degree. 

“To me, it is remembering the history of U.Va. and how many people have come before us, and how much the University has changed, and what kind of change you want to leave when you graduate,” Payne said. 

So far, she has gotten the opportunity to give visitors and students an inside look at the historic space, even when it feels a bit odd to show strangers her room.

“It’s always fun,” Payne said. “I love having people around but it can be a bit weird. But people are really friendly about it.”

One room that does attract a lot of attention is 13 West Range, where writer Edgar Allan Poe supposedly lived during his short time at the University. Batten student Trent Chinnaswamy lives in 15 West Range, next to Edgar Allan Poe’s former room.

Trent Chinnaswamy of 15 West Range. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

As a former member of the University Guides Service, Chinnaswamy enjoys directing tourists around and answering their questions about the historic space. People frequently ask him if he is haunted by Poe’s ghost, and he responds that he is not worried about the writer visiting his room. 

“Confederate soldiers died in all these rooms during the civil war so that’s the thing I’m more worried about … racist ghosts,” Chinnaswamy said. 

Gardiner and Payne have not seen any ghosts during their stays on the Range either. However, Chinnaswamy has seen some horror on McCormick Road. 

“I’ve seen a lot of Lime [scooter] crashes this year because everyone doubles-up on Limes now, and it never goes well,” Chinnaswamy said. 

However, most days for Chinnaswamy are calm on the Range.

“I sit outside my door a lot and do my readings,” Chinnaswamy said. “It is nice to have people casually stop by.”

The casual bumping into friends is what makes the Range so special for Payne, who sees the Range as a better version of a first-year residence hall, only everyone is more self-assured.

“Living here has been the best part of my semester,” Payne said. “School got hard and it’s great to have a community of people who are here to help you.”

Ten doors down from Payne, Ranger Roberto Mendez is trying to meet his new community. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester, joined the military and now is at the University pursuing his doctorate degree in chemistry. In order to expand his social circle beyond the lab, he created a mission for himself. 

He is determined to meet the approximately 100 students who live on both the Lawn and the Range. He has a blueprint of the Academical Village which he uses to write down their names and forces them to look into the future.

“I ask what will you be doing in three weeks in February of the day that they signed it,” Mendez said. “Just to sort of predict what they are going to be doing next semester on that particular day if it comes to fruition, so that when I visit them one more time when I visit them next semester I can see if what they predicted is right.”

Mendez’s map keeps track of meeting his neighbors. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

With five names down so far, he knows he has a long way to go before completing his project. However, he is still casually making himself known to his neighbors.  

Roberto Mendez chats with his neighbor, Alex Hendel. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

Rachel Wilkinson, the president of the Range Council, the group which oversees social activities and facilities issues, also loves the organic exchanges that pop-up on the Range. Although she is busy doing clinicals for her second year of her Clinical Nurse Leader graduate degree, she takes time for spontaneous conversations. 

Rachel Wilkinson is the president of the Range Council. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

“The amazing stuff that happens on a daily basis is like being able to knock on my neighbor’s door and saying, ‘Hey do you want a glass of wine,’ you know, and then just hang out for an hour and chat about stuff and get a load off of us. Sometimes some of us have had a really tough day or something, and we are able to connect somehow in two seconds because she is right there.”

Even though the Rangers do not have indoor bathrooms, laundry or the Lawn’s view of the Rotunda, Wilkinson remembers what a former Ranger said to her. 

“The stuff that everyone says is really inconvenient is really not that bad, and the stuff that really makes it worth it nobody talks about it that much,” Wilkinson said. “And I didn’t really understand that until living here.” 

Too Ghoul for School: Tales of University Hauntings and Beyond

Words by Juliana Callen.

Around Halloween, thrill-seekers may search for scares by braving a haunted house or even taking a stroll through a spooky cemetery. But for Cherie Breeden, the founder of the Virginia-based paranormal investigative team, Lunar Paranormal, the hunt for the paranormal is her everyday career. 

“There’s a lot of history in Virginia — there’s a lot to offer,” Breeden said. “I don’t think that we could ever run out of places to investigate. Well, we’re lucky we live here.” 

Breeden’s interest in the supernatural began when, at nine years old, she attended a field trip to Mount Vernon’s Woodlawn Plantation. Walking down the back staircase, Breeden had a strong suspicion that the location was haunted. 

“I mean I was a child, I don’t know, I just felt it,” Breeden said. “And then several years later, I read in a book that a young girl is known to haunt the back staircase of Woodlawn Plantation. And that’s kind of what got me started.”

She said this openness to the supernatural would prove to be useful as her investigations continued.  

“My primary benefit to the group is that I seem to be able to communicate really well when we do have activity during our investigation,” Breeden said. “They seem to like responding to me.”

The Lunar Paranormal team investigates Virginia areas, looking for paranormal spirits. Photo courtesy Cherie Breeden.

Another member of the team, Dennis Call, said he has a similar skill, in which spirits supposedly become more active in his presence. Danielle Walker helps with public outreach. Breeden’s husband, Chris, is also a member of the team and helps with filming and equipment. He is the most skeptical of the team, but Breeden assures that this point of view is just as valuable. 

“You’ve got to have both sides of the spectrum when it comes to your team,” Breeden said. “You have to have skeptics.”


Prior to her investigations, Breeden said she would notice paranormal activity while visiting friends that attended The University. During a trip to Edgar Allan Poe’s dorm room, Number 13, on the West Range, she recalls seeing a shadow go through the room. On another occasion, Breeden and friends said they felt a haunting energy while walking down the Lawn. 

“Two of us had it at the same time, it felt like somebody pushed us — not hard enough to fall,” Breeden said.

According to Breeden, there are reasons as to why one spirit may be more likely to reveal itself or interact with the living. In her experience, discontented or passionate spirits are easier to contact, as well as spirits that passed suddenly or tragically. That is not to say, however, that she believes friendly ghosts refuse to make appearances in our world.

Cherie Breeden, pictured, has been interested in the paranormal from a young age. Photo courtesy Cherie Breeden.

“I think some of them are in a good place, and they’re content that they come to communicate temporarily, and then they go back,” Breeden said.

Breeden and her friends are not the only students who claimed experiencing paranormal activity at the University. There have been multiple tales of people witnessing the appearance of strange figures and observing strange phenomenons throughout Grounds. 

University of Virginia Cemetery and Columbarium has been a resting place since 1828. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

In her book, “Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties”, author Susan Schwartz explores these ghoulish encounters and presents a collection of ghost stories and haunting, ranging from vanishing figures in Pavilion X to inexplicable footsteps in the Alderman Library. 

Although these supposed hauntings provided ample material for her book, she felt the supernatural from the antiquity of places in themselves. 

“I think that getting out and experiencing that history and walking where somebody else from the past walked it kind of gives it a surreal feeling,” Schwartz said. 

According to third-year College student Annie Parnell, the discussion of possible paranormal activity at the University comes up lightheartedly and adds an element of intrigue. She also feels, however, that these accounts of supernatural activity comes from the University’s 200-year-old history. 

“I’ve had people tell me the Lawn is haunted by ghosts of slaves and stuff like that,” Parnell said. “And I think talking about potential hauntings of somewhere as historic, and also rooted in trauma, as our school is, is kind of a way to engage with that but not actually deconstruct it.” 

Parnell has been working at Alderman Library for almost a year now. Restocking the shelves in the stacks, floor 5M, Parnell stations a cart perpendicular to one of the shelves, when, all of a sudden, it begins to slide toward her. 

“I don’t know if it was just like the floor was off kilter or what, but it was very creepy,” Parnell said. “I kept pushing it back and then it would just keep coming towards me, and I was like, ‘Ah, nope, don’t want that.’ No thank you, ghost of Alderman. I think if anywhere at U.Va. is haunted, it’s definitely Alderman Library. It’s a terrifying building to be in alone.”

Third-year College student Annie Parnell describes Alderman’s 5M floor as “terrifying.” Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

Despite potential haunted library experience and her self-described spooky aesthetic, whether Parnell believes in ghosts is undecided. 

And even professionals have their doubts. Schwartz described herself as part believer, and part skeptic, because she is still waiting for the final piece of corroborating evidence. She encourages others to find their own evidence, but believes the best strategy is to approach investigation with an open mind and focus more on the historical qualities 

“I think you just have to have an open mind and patience to go out there and find what you’re looking for,” Schwartz said. “You may not find it the first time, you may not find it the second time, but get out there and at least spend that time wisely. Enjoy the location, the history. Interview the people. Say, ‘Where does this stuff happen? What can I go find?’” 

Also seeking to understand the paranormal realm, Graduate Arts and Sciences student, Daniel Wise, developed and taught a New Course in religious studies class last spring, the topic of which was paranormal belief in America. In the course, the students studied why people hold paranormal beliefs, what those beliefs look like and how the paranormal beliefs interact with science, religion and media. According to Wise, paranormal beliefs are not structurally different from religious beliefs, but instead tend to be supernatural and fall outside the purview of mainstream religion. Wise is writing his dissertation on ghost hunters in America, which includes additional research that categorizes as religious studies. 

I’m kind of looking at sort of what the spiritual landscape of America looks like post- institutional religion,” Wise said. “Institutional religion is declining, especially among younger people, but it looks like paranormal belief is on the rise.”

Wise has been on multiple ghost hunts firsthand, as his dissertation views ghost hunting through an ethnographic, sociological, historical and American studies lens. The common theme within ghost hunting is enchantment, which refers to the element of mystery and divinity associated with the paranormal. According to sociologist Christopher Bader, enchantment began fading in 20th century America. Mainly a western phenomenon, scholars debate whether ghost hunting is a form of re-enchantment or whether it is a method of maintaining enchantment.

Wise accompanied Lunar Paranormal during an investigation at the Exchange Hotel and Civil War Medical Museum in Gordonsville, Va. Although he had not witnessed any uncanny activity during the ghost hunt and considers himself to be agnostic about ghosts, he said the majority of the American population does believe in paranormal activity. 

“I want to point out that believing in the paranormal is pretty much a normal thing for Americans,” Wise said. “You can’t really stereotype or generalize about paranormal believers because there are so many of them.”

As to why some people are more prone to paranormal experiences than others, Breeden offered an explanation. 

“You know some people might hear spiritual stuff more, some people might see stuff, or feel it,” Breeden said. “But a lot of people just aren’t aware that that’s what they have going on yet. And so yeah I think it just depends on your upbringing and basically your surroundings and what you believe in.” 

Daniel Wise ponders why some people are more likely to believe in the paranormal than others. Photo by Meagan O’Rourke.

In the Baylor Religion Survey of 2005, researchers found that there are factors that can predict whether someone is more likely to hold or not hold paranormal beliefs. The survey concluded that paranormal beliefs are most prevalent in eastern states. Females are more likely to believe in the paranormal than males and are twice as likely than males to believe in psychics, astrology and communication with the dead. The survey also concluded that the likelihood of reporting a paranormal experience decreases with age. 

In March, Breeden, along with fellow investigator Donald Molnar, attended Wise’s class at the University to give a presentation regarding ghost hunting and the paranormal. 

Beginning with a basic introduction about Lunar Paranormal, they went on to discuss ghost hunting techniques and understanding paranormal investigations, including how they work and what types of spirits exist. It was when demonstrating the equipment, however, that Breeden began to notice supernatural activity within the classroom. Prior to the presentation, Breeden asked that any nearby spirits follow the team into the room. 

Then, she gave students copper dowsing rods, which are thin, L-shaped rods. The students held the smaller part of the “L” in each of their hands and watched if the longer parts moved. If the long parts swung together forming an “X”, Breeden said the rods showed signs of spirits. After seeing the rods move, the class also asked the supposed spirit questions about itself and requested it to even touch one of the student’s arms with the rotating rod. 

Using the dowsing rods and questioning the spirit, the class supposedly realized their paranormal visitor was an alumnus. The class seemingly discovered he was a male student,  attended and graduated from the University between 1900 and 1950. 

“For the students to experience and witness this first-hand seemed to impress them and cause more excitement than any of the other pieces of equipment,” Breeden said. “It was surprising in this day and age of modern technology that the students considered the dowsing rods more validating.” 

If the presentation did change anyone’s perspective regarding paranormal activity, Breeden assures that the presence of ghosts felt by Americans is not altogether unpleasant or fearful.  

“And it’s not a bad thing that there is spiritual activity going on in our world,” Breeden said. “It’s around us — everywhere.”

1993: Hatred’s History

Former students speak about their encounters with violent acts of discrimination

Words and Photo Illustrations by Dan Goff.

Editor’s note: The author of this article searched through old Cavalier Daily articles and examined content related to racist events from the 1990s. This article contains material that may remind some readers of traumatic events.

“A few weeks ago, something happened to me I shall never forget.” 

So begins Barbara Patterson’s Viewpoint article, “Magistrate fails to protect victims of racist neo-Nazi attack,” published in The Cavalier Daily April 7, 1993. Patterson was a fourth-year College student at the time. As the title suggests, her piece describes an attack instigated by neo-Nazis against two black men on the Corner, along with the legal action — or lack thereof — that followed it. The incident, witnessed by Patterson and her friend, took place within a week of the attempted murder of a Puerto Rican man. Both events were racially motivated, both of them took place in the spring of 1993 and both helped uncover a community of underground neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

According to the Viewpoint — essentially today’s op-ed — Patterson and her friend were walking through the Corner a little before midnight on a Saturday when they noticed a “tall, skinny white male walking towards [them].” Assuming he was drunk, Patterson tried to stay out of his way, but he “swerved his body” towards her and rammed into her, trying to knock her over “for no apparent reason.” She started to yell at him, but thought better of it. “Something told me … if I said anything to him, he might do something far worse than violently bump me with the side of his body.”

Then, they witnessed the attack. “It wasn’t until my friend and I saw the guy and a bunch of his friends jump two black men who were also innocently walking by the Corner that I realized the guy and his friends might be neo-Nazi skinheads looking to incite racial violence,” Patterson wrote. “I was right.” 

If she needed further proof, Patterson watched as “virtually dozens of neo-Nazi newsletters” fell from one of the assailant’s pockets and “went flying out all over the sidewalk.” 

The fight didn’t last long before policemen, “who were in the right area at the right time,” put a stop to it. Patterson and her friend explained the situation to the police and then accompanied the two black men who had gotten jumped to the police station so they could explain what had happened.

Once at the station, they repeated their story to the magistrate, whose response was “frustrating.” 

“We … were told unless we were absolutely positive we could identify the men, there was nothing we could do,” Patterson wrote. The same was told to the two men involved in the attack. “Those two guys who were brutally jumped because they were black could have put away at least one or two of the neo-Nazis; but because of fear and a definite lack of encouragement on the part of the magistrate, the case was eventually dropped.”

“At that point,” Patterson wrote, “I started to get angry. I felt like the magistrate was subtly trying to dissuade us from taking action against the Nazis.”

Just “because someone is on the ‘side of the law’ and works for the police department doesn’t necessarily mean he is completely impartial and objective, even though he is supposed to be,” she said. “I firmly believe the magistrate used what little power he could to dissuade those two young men from pressing charges.” 

Patterson wasn’t sure whether the magistrate was racially motivated not to act, but regardless, “the magistrate was condescending, intimidating and ultimately lacking in objectivity. In a town filled with so much racial and class tension, the last thing we need is a magistrate who is either lazy or racially insensitive.”


In her 26 years of post-grad life since the article’s publication, Patterson has made some major changes. A married woman, she goes by Barbara Roy. She lives with her family in California, where she works as a publicist for a small entertainment firm. Charlottesville and the University, which she attended from 1989 to 1993, are not often on her mind. Even some details of the incident have faded somewhat from her mind after a quarter of a century.

“I remember the incident very, very well … but the whole aftermath was much more hazy,” Roy said in a phone interview. The sensation of “feeling frustrated” was stuck in her mind, but she admitted that she didn’t “really remember” the magistrate as the source of that frustration.

Although the assault is not as clear in her mind as it once was, it has had lasting repercussions on her adult life. For one, Roy said, it helped her decide to leave the city after graduation. 

“I had a nice little apartment that was close to the Corner, and I had come to really like Charlottesville,” she said. But after a conversation with her father — in which he encouraged her to move on — combined with the assault, she had to rethink her desire to stay. 

“In many ways [the incident] sort of left a bad taste in my mouth,” Roy said. “It was right before graduation and it was a pretty eye-opening and upsetting experience … I was ready to leave.”

After leaving Charlottesville, Roy briefly returned to her birthplace of Massachusetts and then worked alternately in California and D.C., jumping from coast to coast until settling in California in 1998. She and her family have been to visit friends in D.C. a few times since then, Roy said, but she’s never returned to Charlottesville.

Staying away from her alma mater isn’t “that intentional,” she said. “It wasn’t one of those things where I was like, ‘I’m never going back there again.’ It’s definitely not that. Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been … But looking back on it now, I do have some mixed feelings about whether it was the right place for me culturally.”

An English major, Roy said she loved the academics at the University. But coming from a multicultural background — a Jamaican father, a British mother and what she called an “international” hometown — the University seemed “very racially segregated.”

Outright discrimination because of her race or gender was not common for Roy in her time as an undergrad, she explained, but she described sometimes “feeling like I had to prove myself intellectually, academically having a place … that I didn’t just get in because of the color of my skin.”

And although she didn’t frequently experience discrimination, she could still recall a specific instance. Either in her third or fourth year — the details are somewhat obscure in this case, as well — Roy went with friends to a “predominately white” frat party somewhere on Rugby Road and was met with a surprise.

“I remember a bunch of the guys were in blackface — the traditional, minstrel blackface aesthetic,” she said. “I do remember feeling kind of stunned, just stunned. Like, why are these guys doing this? … It just felt really wrong.”

The racism Roy experienced in the University community, whether subtle or explicit, did little to prepare her for the display of violence she witnessed on the Corner. She said that, prior to the incident, she was unaware of a neo-Nazi presence in Charlottesville. “That’s what was so strange about it … I had no idea that they were there.”

In her Viewpoint piece, Roy wrote that “it is imperative for students to know Charlottesville isn’t the safe, quaint college town it is often made out to be.” A similar thought was on her mind, she said, when she tuned into the news in August 2017. The attack she had witnessed was the first thing that came to her mind. 

“These horrible people are descending on Charlottesville again,” she said. “I can’t believe it.” 

She acknowledged that August 11 and 12 constituted “way more of a horrific event” than her undergrad experience, but she couldn’t help but see the parallel. 

“The fact that people kind of subscribe to this notion of white supremacy, racial purity, whatever whatever, that they feel empowered and emboldened to come to Charlottesville and really put together a large congregation of people who subscribe to that ideology,” she said. “It just really struck a chord and made me really sad.”


Roy’s article did not go into extensive detail about what was happening in the community. 1993 articles from The Daily Progress help provide more information about the incident and others like it.

In the March 12, 1993 article “Neo-Nazi, friend charged in separate acts of violence,” the local paper describes both the incident witnessed by Roy — which, according to the article, took place March 6 of that year — and another assault committed by a different neo-Nazi which took place March 11.

This latter event involved 19-year-old Eric Hoffman, a neo-Nazi who lived in Charlottesville at the time, and a Puerto Rican man who in the article is referred to only as Edgar to protect the identity of himself and his family. According to the article, Edgar, who was in his early 20s, had been receiving death threats from Hoffman and a few other men. These escalated to an invasion of Edgar’s home March 11, when Hoffman and two others held a gun to the Puerto Rican man’s head and attempted to kill him. Edgar was able to escape by using a gun of his own that he had recently bought for fear of his life, although he did not shoot anyone, and Hoffman was taken into custody under the charge of attempted murder.

This article also described the March 6 attack witnessed by Roy, which had not yet been reported on by The Daily Progress. According to the article, one man — 23-year-old Christopher Andrew Tolley — was arrested that night on the Corner and taken into custody. 

Tolley, a self-described “Nazi and a semi-active skinhead,” argued his innocence in the incident. He denied the claim made against him that he had been handing out pamphlets for “The New Order,” a Lincoln, Nebraska-based white supremacist group founded by infamous neo-Nazi Gary Lauck. Instead, he said, he was helping another man pick up papers on the Corner “when he was hit from behind by two black men.”

The paper provided a quote from Tolley in which he attempted to prove his innocence. “‘I may be a bit crazy, but I’m not stupid,’” he said. “‘I’m not going to attack two big black guys.’”

Both incidents, however, clearly had some level of racial motivation. When Hoffman and his accomplices broke into Edgar’s home, the Puerto Rican man quoted Hoffman as saying, “‘You are all s–cs and we’re white, and it won’t stick.’”

The two men also knew each other. Tolley was visiting Hoffman from out of town and had been staying at his apartment at the time of his arrest.

The day after the article describing these two attacks was published, The Daily Progress ran a follow-up piece entitled “Police: Band of neo-Nazis is formed.” The article claimed that “a small band of neo-Nazi skinheads has organized in the Charlottesville area and may be responsible for a growing number of what could be racially motivated attacks on minorities.”

This information was provided by Detective Robert Frazier, who at the time had been monitoring local neo-Nazi activity. “‘There are about 10 to 15 local skinheads in the area right now,’” Frazier said in the article. Some of them were apparently even younger than the 19-year-old Hoffman — a teenage eyewitness to the March 6 attack claimed “he recognized some of the skinheads” as his classmates at Albemarle High School.

The police department had received reports that the skinheads were practicing “military-style drills” in various parts of the city, but at the time of the article’s publication, these were not confirmed. Frazier did say, however, that the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were the “foot soldiers of the Nazi party.” He also said of the group, “They are trying to ignite a white revolt.”


Roy’s Viewpoint piece was the first of several articles published by The Cavalier Daily which addressed the neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville. News briefs describing rallies like “Concerned Black Students,” organized by the Black Student Alliance, were published, along with a variety of Viewpoint pieces concerning race relations in the student community.

Alfred Toole — who, at the time, was a second-year in the college and vice chair for programs in the Black Student Alliance — published one such piece on April 23, 1993. Entitled “Voice of concern for every student,” the article described a few different University-oriented issues, with the March 6 attack at its center, and how the BSA dealt with each of them. 

“In the case of the neo-Nazis,” Toole wrote, “many people will blow them off. In a few weeks, the uproar will all die down and disappear.”

He criticized the “University community’s apathy” regarding the attacks. “Does someone have to be killed before we consider acting? One attack is one too many.”

Toole also expressed hope that “students at the University can get beyond race. We must learn to have compassion not only for our race but also for our fellow man.” He finished his appeal by acknowledging that the BSA is not infallible, using the organization’s missteps and subsequent reevaluation as a universal model. “The past is a hard thing to forget; it shouldn’t be forgotten,” he wrote. “But people must not dwell on the past; we must live in the present. And we must learn from the past.”

Toole’s post-grad life has followed a drastically different trajectory than that of Roy. After taking some classes at the University’s law school, he decided to drop out and work in the city instead. Toole worked briefly as a paralegal but soon moved to the two fields which would dominate his adult life — the school and the church.

Today, he’s devoted nearly two decades to the public school systems of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and the same amount of time to Waynesboro Church of Christ. Toole currently works full-time as a Learning Technology Integrator and part time as the church’s youth minister.

According to Toole, both jobs center around a goal he first realized during his time as an undergrad, through BSA — to “have a positive impact by serving.” 

“The Black Student Alliance raised awareness and … made the present and the future better,” Toole said. This mission statement led him to get involved with the BSA, and it also led him to write the Viewpoint concerning the neo-Nazi activity. 

Much of the piece speaks of cyclical human behavior — getting upset about an instance of discrimination or racially-motivated violence, only to forget about it until the next incidence occurs. As someone who’s spent his entire adult life in the Charlottesville area, Toole is no stranger to this sort of behavior. He’s not judgmental of it, though. 

“I think all of us fall into patterns of normalcy just so we can function and survive,” Toole said. “I don’t think anyone could sustain a fever pitch reaction.”

More important, he explained, is how people react whenever the newest act of discrimination is committed. “When you have those cycles that happen, where are you on the continuum? Are you one of the people who move the needle, or do you let other people move the needle?”

His choice of language brings to mind the words of Dave Matthews at his historic Concert for Charlottesville, when he said, “I feel like tonight maybe moved the needle a little bit in a good direction.” Matthews’ activism, however — that is, activism which presents itself in the form of a star-studded musical event with fanfare to spare — is not the sort of community service which interests Toole.

For a better understanding of Toole’s motivations, just consider what he wants written on his tombstone, according to his website — “Here lies the stone sunk that caused all those ripples.” Toole doesn’t want to be in the limelight, he explained, “but I do want to make sure I’ve had an impact wherever I’ve been.”

Despite loving the “community aspect” of Charlottesville and its “slower pace of life,” Toole acknowledged that the city has a lot of areas that can, and need to benefit from positive impacts. When he witnessed the events of Aug. 11 and 12, he said, he had no idea that the tragedy would be on such a large scale. 

“As a graduate of U.Va., I was outraged, I was shocked, I was embarrassed, I was in some ways ashamed,” Toole said.

He was quick to criticize, however, the correspondingly large-scale media coverage of the rallies, arguing that such a focus on the negative “made it seem like we were back a couple decades to a lot of people.” As befits his character and his professions, Toole thought there should have been more emphasis on the “overwhelming response” from the community that he first described seeing at Heather Heyer’s funeral. 

“Yes, you have this horrible event that happened,” Toole said. “But you also have this amazing outpouring of love and … people saying, ‘This is not welcome in our community. This is unacceptable.’”

The reduction of Charlottesville to “a hashtag” frustrates Toole. It’s a trend he’s noticed of both media organizations and the country at large failing to see the “larger systems at work.” 

Toole cited several instances from his life which he said pointed towards larger issues. When he was a law school student, the O.J. Simpson trial was taking place. Toole said he was struck by the irony of his white classmates suddenly bemoaning the “failure” of the criminal justice system when Simpson was acquitted, while Toole had continually criticized the same system for charging racial minorities for crimes they had not committed. “It was like a total flip-flop.”

Similarly, Toole discussed the larger problems associated with the racial “achievement gap” which he has experienced firsthand through his public school employment. “I shouldn’t be able to predict that an African-American male is probably gonna flunk geometry…” he said. “Those numbers shouldn’t be predictive but they still are.”

Toole neatly summed up his anxieties about larger systems by returning to the idea of patterns in a community. “When we realize a paradigm is not working the way it’s supposed to or seems to be fostering a negative pattern, how do we change that to be a positive pattern?”


In a Daily Progress article published March 23, 1993 and titled “Charge against neo-Nazi dropped,” Tolley’s court case and its dismissal are briefly described. The judge — possibly Roy’s “magistrate,” though this is not verified — dropped the case since it “wasn’t clear from testimony who started a fight.” Tolley said he planned to leave town soon afterwards. Judging by the lack of subsequent articles published about him, he seems to have made good on this promise.

So what became of the local neo-Nazis and their planned “white revolt?” According to The Daily Progress, nothing — mentions of the radical hate group allegedly forming in Charlottesville virtually disappear after the March 13 article identifying them. Maybe their newfound publicity spooked the supremacists enough to make them retreat back to the shadows of society. Detective Frazier, the policeman who was quoted as tracking the group’s activity, died in 2002, so asking him was not possible.

Frazier did say in the March 13 article that “the Charlottesville skinhead group isn’t that active until friends from out of town visit,” mimicking the “out of town” rhetoric that some attempted to use in the wake of Aug. 11 and 12 to absolve Charlottesville of racial guilt. Another strange parallel between the neo-Nazi incidents — purely coincidental, it seems, but still unusual — is that Spike Lee made his first visit to the University about a month after the events on the Corner. The next time he would return to speak publicly in Charlottesville would be in Nov. 2017, when he said, “If we don’t acknowledge the history of this country, we can’t move forward” — in itself, a mirror of Toole’s 1993 suggestion to “live in the present” and “learn from the past.”

In her article, Roy urged “students to know Charlottesville isn’t the safe, quaint college town it is often made out to be.” Decades later, Toole watched with dismay as his city “became a hashtag.” Essentially, both are arguing against the same thing — reduction of a place to one or two of its qualities, whether positive or negative, fails to adequately depict the place.

There are always larger forces at play, Toole said, and he’s focused his adult life on addressing them. He has his community — a flawed, complicated community, but a community nonetheless — to help him in his efforts.  “Sometimes you want to dig up a root and you keep digging, but the root is just so big … bigger than you thought,” Toole said. “My hope would be that when people are digging at these systems and trying to dig them up, they take breaks and pass the shovel to other people who can help.”

An Eyesore, a Hazard and a Millionaire

The story of the Dewberry Hotel

Words by Spencer Philps. Photos by Riley Walsh.

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At the corner of 2nd and East Main Street in Charlottesville sits an eleven-story, concrete skeleton of a building that looms imposingly above the historic pedestrian Downtown Mall. 

The first few floors are boarded up with large plywood sheets that appear to be warping, and the nine floors above them remain fully exposed, with metal framing fitting between the raw concrete structure. The granite front of the building, what was once the Central Fidelity bank, is filled with debris, milk crates and piles of branches. Local residents have complained that the building is infested with rats and other animals. 

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This year marked the 11th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Landmark Hotel, and there is little to show for it. According to the Dewberry Group’s website, the hotel is now poised to become The Laramore apartment complex. However, the construction would not comply with current zoning, according to The Daily Progress, and the completion of the project remains mysterious.

Conceived by Charlottesville developer Lee Danielson and financed largely by the wealthy entrepreneur Halsey Minor, a University graduate and descendant of the locally-prominent Minor family — two on-grounds buildings, Halsey Hall and Minor Hall, bear the names of his relatives — the nine-story boutique hotel was to bring over a hundred rooms to the heart of downtown Charlottesville. 

Dave Norris, the mayor of Charlottesville at the time, was optimistic about the project, and at the groundbreaking celebration, Minor noted that the hotel would be “like nothing people have ever seen.” 

After over 11 years of promises, delays, protracted litigation and bankruptcies, the hotel on 2nd and East Main is hardly closer to being completed than it was ten years ago, and the patience of many Charlottesville residents who see it as a blight on their downtown skyline has worn thin. 

“People are upset because that location is literally in the center of the Downtown Mall, so one, its taking up this prime real estate spot on the Downtown Mall, and then two, it just looks terrible,” said James Burger, a University student who grew up in the area and worked in the Downtown Mall area during his time in high school. 

“For as long as I lived here, it has just sat there, and nothing has been done about it,” Burger said.  


Halsey Minor, Lee Danielson and the Landmark Hotel 

The story of what led to the uncompleted tower cannot be explained without exploring the early relationship of Halsey Minor and Lee Danielson. Danielson, a local developer who led the Downtown Mall revitalization efforts in the 1990s, first purchased the land that would contain the hotel in 2000. 

In the following years, Danielson tried in vain to construct a hotel on the property, selling it and then repurchasing the land in 2007. That year, he entered into a partnership with Minor, whom he had known since 1998, to fund construction of the Landmark Hotel. 

The construction of the hotel grew turbulent just months after groundbreaking. Concerns grew around funding sources and the institutional lenders, and rumors spread that workers were not getting paid. Builders began to place liens on the property. By late 2009 and early 2010, construction on the hotel had stopped entirely, and Danielson announced that he had been fired by Minor.

Minor accused Danielson and a bank of colluding against him to drive up prices and filed lawsuits against the two — Danielson and the bank filed suits of their own against Minor. This was the beginning of several years of litigation and counterpunches — by 2010, Minor was involved in eight Landmark Hotel-related lawsuits in both Virginia and Georgia. That same year Minor Family Hotels, the company of which Minor served as the CEO, went bankrupt. 

Simultaneously, Minor was dealing with other problems. In 2009, Sotheby’s, the art broker, claimed that Minor had failed to pay them back for three pieces of art, and a year later a judge ordered Minor to pay them $6.6 million. Additionally, a large farm he had bought near Colonial Williamsburg for $15.3 million to raise horses went bankrupt in 2011. According to a New York Times article, in one of his art-related lawsuits, his own lawyer described Minor to the jury as “rude” and “unlikeable.”

This lavish spending, coupled with the financial recession and the multiplying lawsuits, forced him to file for bankruptcy in 2013.


From the Landmark to the Dewberry Hotel

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In June of 2012, the Landmark Hotel was put up for auction. Only two bidders entered, and the hotel project was ultimately awarded to Atlanta-based developer John Dewberry and his firm, Dewberry Capital, for $6.25 million. The project was renamed to the Dewberry Hotel. 

Dewberry, a former Georgia Tech quarterback-turned well-known Atlanta-based developer, promised to pour millions of dollars in additions to the hotel, in line with Dewberry Capital’s underlying strategy of snatching up abandoned properties and continuing the construction.

A profile of John Dewberry in Bloomberg Businessweek noted his practices of sitting on valuable lots across the south, referring to him as a “developer who won’t develop.” The Bloomberg article also revealed that he currently sits on some of the most valuable properties in Atlanta, lots upon which he has yet to build. The article included quotes from people who knew him that referred to Dewberry as “narcissistic” and having an ego that gets in the way of his work.

At the time of his acquisition of the Landmark Hotel, Dewberry was in the process of renovating an old federal building in Charleston into a hotel that would be known as the Dewberry Charleston. They maintained that they would be completing that project first before starting on the Dewberry Hotel in Charlottesville.

In 2013, the City of Charlottesville ordered Dewberry to better secure the property, as it had become “detrimental to the safety, health and welfare of the community,” as people had begun to trespass and vandalize the property. Dewberry responded in a fiery letter that stated he had already done enough to secure it and went on to write that “I can never remember a property owner being held responsible for these acts of trespassing and vandalism. The perpetrator of these petty crimes is sought, not the owner of the property.”

In the letter, he also expressed his anger at the lack of progress on the project. 

“Folks, I am much more frustrated than you. None of you have spent $7mm (and climbing) on this asset.” he wrote. He again reiterated that he would not begin work on the site until his property in Charleston was finished.

But by June of 2016, the Dewberry Charleston had opened its doors to laudatory praise. Despite Dewberry’s promise to begin construction on the Charlottesville Dewberry Hotel soon after, essentially no progress was made to the building. 

In the fall of 2016, Dewberry asked the City of Charlottesville for an incentive that would allow him to recuperate the taxes that had accrued on the property so that he could continue construction.

City Council approved the terms of an agreement with Dewberry that guaranteed 75 parking spaces in the Water Street Parking Garage and substantial tax breaks that were contingent on Dewberry investing $20 million in the project and essentially complete the building by September of 2020. However, City Council voted down the plan in December 2017.

Michael Payne, formerly of the Charlottesville Arm of the Democratic Socialists of America and current candidate for City Council, was heavily involved with the community protest of these public incentives being offered to Dewberry. Payne noted Dewberry’s notorious reputation of sitting on land in desirable areas and fears other developers may follow his example. 

“[The Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America campaign] was trying to call attention to Dewberry’s business practices, and how he’s a bad actor, but also to oppose the City’s idea of giving him public money and public resources. I don’t think that that is a good practice, and I also think that it sets a bad precedent if the City gives into a developer in that way,” Payne said. “It creates a precedent that other developers could say, ‘Well, he did it, why don’t we try the same thing,’ and that’s something that’s actually happened in a lot of cities.” 

Payne also noted how Charlottesville residents are still concerned about the Dewberry Hotel. 

“I would say at the public forums and meet-and-greets that I’ve done, there’s almost always at least one question about the Dewberry Hotel, because people are upset about the fact that we have this big eyesore on the Downtown Mall,” Payne said. 

He urged City Council to act decisively and fast to stop Dewberry from hurting the city more. 

“Council needs to have a unified negotiating strategy,” Payne said. “It can’t waiver and go back and forth. They need to know exactly what their plan is going to be, and again, I would favor the City taking an aggressive negotiating strategy because at the end of the day John Dewberry is just trying to rip the City off.”


Looking ahead 

Not much apparent progress has been made to the building since the vote. In the spring of 2018, the Board of Architectural Review approved Dewberry’s plans to add new height and massing, and there are reports of meetings held with the City to discuss adding retail space on the hotel ground floor. 

According to the Dewberry Group’s website, the hotel is now poised to become The Laramore apartment complex. However, if the apartments are over about 12 stories, the building may not comply with zoning code according to The Daily Progress, and the completion of the project remains mysterious. 

Dewberry Capital has remained silent and difficult to contact on its plans, to the chagrin of the residents who have to look at the building everyday. They did not reply to a request for comment.

Jose Gomez III, a lecturer of structural engineering at the University, said certain precautions ought to be taken before continuing construction on the project. 

“The developer would need to, first and foremost get a credentialed structural engineer to go in there and do an extensive inspection. You’d ask then what [is] the remediation that I need to do, and then you could start pricing it out” Gomez said. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be still a viable investment to then complete … it’s not that far gone.”

Gomez explained that there could be cracks in the concrete that have filled with water, or worse, pigeon droppings, making the site structurally unsound. 

“One of the things I’d be concerned with, and I’m dead serious, is pigeon poop,” Gomez added. “That’s a very acidic material, and so if you have the pigeon poop, which I guarantee you do, it’s a pigeon haven … that pigeon poop mixes with water and comes into the concrete cracks, and then the pigeon poop migrates to the steel and then you’ve got a highly corrosive material sitting there.” 

Gomez was also concerned about the plywood sheeting that had been placed around the first few floors of the hotel, fearing it could hurt somebody. 

“There was a case where a sheet of it fell down one day on the side street,” he said. “It’s in bad shape. The plywood, over a short period of time, when exposed to water, will just come apart … and I really think that the immediate safety issue is that plywood … last time I was there it was looking really bad.” 

Like many others in the City, Gomez was fed up with the project. 

“It’s just so frustrating — it gives a black eye to the community, it gives a black eye to the profession … I blame the developer, they have the purse strengths,” he said. “There’s no wins here. It’s a loss for everybody.”

Our American Energy

What the possible construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline means to those opposed

Words by Juliana Callen and Kasey Roper. Illustration by Max Patten.

Editor’s note: abcd talked to four people in the Charlottesville community opposed to the construction of the ACP. We attempted to interview Dominion in April, and after reaching out again in the fall, we were not able to get a response before publishing. This article will be updated as more information is received.

“This is Our American Energy,” claimed Dominion Energy in a 2017 advertisement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline which would transport natural gas, a non-renewable resource.

Today, Dominion Energy is still advocating for the construction of the ACP, and debate continues over what “Our American Energy” is. 

While the proposed pipeline would not cross Charlottesville directly, it would still impact the community and those nearby, as it would run through Augusta, Nelson and Buckingham counties if completed. Additionally, some of the controversial issues surrounding the ACP’s construction including environmental concerns are all too familiar to residents.


Pipeline Background & Purpose

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a critical infrastructure project that will strengthen the economic vitality, environmental health and energy security of the Mid-Atlantic region,” the ACP’s website states

 In 2015, Dominion Energy submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for construction of the ACP after doing extensive research on its need and possible environmental effects. FERC then conducted its own research and compiled an environmental impact statement, eventually approving the project.

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Key acronyms of organizations involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline issue and events. 

The 600 miles of pipes were initially designed to cross the Appalachian Trails, cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains and claim vast amounts of public and private land through eminent domain laws.

Eminent domain laws permit governments and other agencies to confiscate land for necessary public goods or services. The most common use is for the U.S. Department of Transportation to confiscate land in order to construct highways. 

Ellen Bassett, associate professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture, explained that Dominion Energy has this power of eminent domain because it is a utility service. It provides consumers with a product — electricity that is generated by natural gas — and pipelines transport the natural gas needed to provide this product. Bassett compares the issue of eminent domain regarding the ACP to that of a highway. 

“Highways [are] pretty similar to a pipeline,” Bassett said. “You’re letting things flow. Commerce is flowing. Cars are flowing. Energy is flowing.” 

Class of 2019 alumna who double-majored in Biology and Music, Alice Clair, has actively challenged the pipeline since its proposal in 2015. Originally from Nelson County, Clair was stricken by the implications of the ACP’s use of eminent domain laws. 

“In America, we’ve been given the right to own private land and to protect it from the government, and here is direct governmental legislation that’s allowing them to displace you from your private land on the basis of a private corporation — for literally private corporate gains,” Clair said

Though it has claimed land from landowners and the ACP would cross several national parks, Dominion has made over 300 route adjustments, including those to avoid sources of drinking water, wildlife habitats and sensitive geological features.   

Some of Dominion Energy’s main reasons for constructing the pipeline are to create jobs and stimulate the economy, in addition to bringing energy to parts of North Carolina.

Since Dominion Energy uses natural gas to provide electricity to its consumers, it has the power of eminent domain as long as the pipeline is considered necessary.

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An ACP employee works on the pipes before they get distributed to the areas they will be installed. Photo from the ACP’s Media Center.

Environmental Considerations

Third-year Global Studies & Environmental Studies double-major Eliza Fisher is concerned about the impacts the construction of the ACP would have on the environment. 

According to Fisher, Dominion Energy is encouraging the continued use of nonrenewable resources by constructing the pipeline. Rather than building “the fossil fuel industry,” Fisher believes the United States should be creating sustainable methods of energy consumption.

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A worker helps guide the pipe into the ground. Photo from ACP’s Media Center.

“We need to be acting now for a positive climate future,” Fisher said. “The pipelines that are already [in Virginia] aren’t even serving at capacity — and they shouldn’t be, we should stop fueling the demand [for] natural gas.” 

Dominion Energy claims that the ACP will improve air quality, since burning natural gas releases fewer carbon emissions than burning coal. While it is true that natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal, Bassett points out that it is not a sustainable energy source. 

“It’s still not a renewable,” Bassett said. “It’s not solar, it’s not wind. It’s still an energy source that is certainly contributing to climate change.”

For Fisher, the ultimate concern over the pipeline comes down to its abuse of power and its negative impacts for energy consumption. For Bassett, the ACP masks deeper concerns about consumers’ dependence on nonrenewable resources. 

“My takeaway is [that] the pipeline is almost a symptom of something deeper,” Bassett said, “which is [that] we really have to come to grips with how we are heavily dependent upon petroleum products.”

Rather than relying on non-renewable resources, Bassett suggested that America shifts its source of energy to renewable resources, such as wind, solar and hydraulics.  

“We have to have an energy revolution.”

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Dominion Energy assures landowners and environmentalists that land will be restored once construction of the pipeline is complete. This is one such restored area. The path of the pipeline can be seen, since no trees can be planted above it. Photo from ACP’s Media Center. To Bassett, this loss is devastating and would take away part of what she loves about her state. 

“What’s so beautiful about this part of Virginia is we have so much forest cover,” Bassett said

Yet, the ACP would negatively impact viewsheds, or a view of a landscape from a particular vantage point, according to Jonathan Gendzier, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who is working on court cases it filed against the ACP. 

“Once construction is complete there will be a permanent impact to the viewsheds from the trail and from some special overlooks that the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway access in that area,” Gendzier said.


Environmental Racism & Social Justice Considerations 

Bassett explained that companies are more likely to place things like factories or, in the case of the ACP, compressor stations that can be potentially detrimental to the health of people and land in minority communities. 

In the United States, minority communities, such as historically African-American neighborhoods or Native American lands, are often infringed upon for the purposes of industrialization. 

“In Charlottesville we talk about Vinegar Hill, which is the old African-American neighborhood that got basically wiped out,” Bassett said. 

During the 1960s, Vinegar Hill, a 20-acre neighborhood between the University and the Downtown Mall, was demolished as part of an urban renewal project to expand Charlottesville and build apartments and shops. Hundreds of African-American families and businesses were displaced from their community. However, the land stood empty for decades and was eventually paved over with parking lots. The community members voices were not heard, since a poll-tax prevented the majority of them from voting on the project.

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Buckingham County residents, joined by former Vice President Al Gore, protested the construction of the Union Hill compressor station in February of 2018, claiming the construction was environmental racism. Photo courtesy Eliza Fisher.

A similar fate lingers overhead of Union Hill, a historically African-American neighborhood in Buckingham County, Va. about an hour’s drive away from Charlottesville. The ACP received approval to construct one of three proposed compressor stations in direct proximity to the neighborhood, which is still inhabited today. However, this construction has been stalled along with that of the pipeline. 

Compressor stations are a central part of natural gas transportation because they help maintain the pressure of gas so that it can travel through the pipeline across different elevations and temperatures. The locations of these stations are typically strategically placed to counteract the effects of topography, which impact the pressure inside the pipeline. 

However, according to Bassett, the location selected for this compressor station is “a classic environmental justice or environmental racism question.” This is a concern for her because it seemingly ignores the voices of current residents, who have been actively opposing the pipeline and compressor station by holding rallies. 

Fisher agreed that this is problematic, adding that the compressor station would be a site of constant loud noise and serious health and pollution concerns. 

The proposed location of the ACP’s compressor station is not a unique occurrence, but rather a pattern. 

“We tend to put the least desirable or most polluting health, sort of deleterious land uses near minority communities,” Bassett said

The Union Hill community has actively been protesting the construction of this compressor station. Some members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, a University organization, have become directly involved with the Union Hill community by attending protests and discussions led by famous environmental activists, including Al Gore, and residents of Buckingham County.  

Fisher, a member of VSEC, believes that those who stand up and practice environmental activism are remarkably brave.  

“I think that given the stakes of something like this pipeline — how big the stakes are — people who put themselves in positions of extreme vulnerability through direct action are incredibly courageous,” she said. 

Though she has not been directly involved with Buckingham County, Fisher has made an effort to learn as much as she can about the ACP issue. 

“I think learning as much as you can about it is extremely important,” Fisher said. “And I think listening to the communities on the front line of the resistance is extremely important in just seeing what sort of support that they need.”

One example of environmental activism is a tree-sit, which occurs when people construct a small platform in a tree slated to be cut down in order to protest deforestation and protect the environment. 

Tree-sits have successfully stopped construction of pipelines in the past, which Fisher finds encouraging because it gains press for the movement. In April 2018, tree-sits by Red Terry and Minor Terry successfully delayed the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a fracked natural gas pipeline planned to cross 303 miles in West Virginia and Virginia. 

“It’s great to bring attention to these issues if someone’s living in a tree,” Fisher said. “There have been Washington Post articles written about it.” 

Not everyone is able to tree-sit, though. At the University, students turn to student-run organizations, such as VSEC, for involvement opportunities.

According to its Facebook page, VSEC “unifies students across Virginia to create a network for advocacy, education and action.” Some of its main concerns are the use of fossil fuels and the intersection of environmental activism and social justice

VSEC partnered with The Ties That Bind—a #NoPipelines Community Collaborative Art and Story Project coordinated by eco-artist and poet Amelia L. Williams. They held an event on April 14th to create braids, ropes, festoons and swags. These will be added to a larger project that links together fabrics from multiple communities, symbolizing how these communities are braided together in their collective effort to protect the health of the environment.

Alice Clair’s protest against the pipeline is her music. Photo courtesy Clara Castle.

Also taking action in opposition to the ACP is Clair, whose music has been influenced by the issue. She performs both solo, with a folk band and with her band, the BLDRS. 

“It is very clear what is right and what is wrong in this situation, and I’ve used my music I guess as a platform,” Clair said. “I’ve written many songs in opposition to the pipeline.”

Taking a similar approach as Clair is the SUN SiNG Collective, which is working to create a new No Pipeline anthem and song video to stop the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines. They had a concert at Jefferson Theater this past April. The SUN SiNG Collective is an event organized by the group Water Is Life. Protect It, which consists of environmentalists across Virginia working to protect clean water. 

Clair spoke about some of the fundamental concerns surrounding the ACP issue, namely, the public’s lack of concern for Dominion Energy’s use of eminent domain laws, as well as for the construction of the ACP in general.  

“If we as informed, educated, privileged citizens of the United States don’t pay attention to the first people getting [affected] by legislation like this, the first people that are gonna be attacked by this kind of overstepping of governmental bounds, then we’re gonna be next,” Clair said. “And really we shouldn’t even view it like that — we should see it as our duty to keep this Earth as intact as possible.”


The Future of the Pipeline

While Clair and Fisher are actively strategizing ways to stop construction, the fate of the ACP will ultimately be decided in the courts.

SELC, whose headquarters is located on West Main St. in Charlottesville, worked on two court cases that challenged the construction of the ACP. 

On behalf of the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife and Virginia Wilderness Committee, SELC filed a legal challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion, which, according to the FWS, is a document that states the opinion of the [FWS] as to whether or not the Federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.” 

The permit issued by the FWS was blocked by the Virginia Fourth Circuit of Appeals, as Gendzier hoped, which he says could cause serious delays in construction. However, Dominion told its investors in an earnings conference call that the permit would most likely be reissued by the end of 2019. So, while construction in Virginia has temporarily been halted, the pipeline still may be built. 

In August 2018, SELC and the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, on behalf of 13 conservation groups, filed a lawsuit against FERC over the approval it gave the ACP. As the overarching permit for the project, this case challenges the underlying necessity of the ACP and is set to be heard in the fall. 

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that the claimed need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to power natural gas for electricity generation in Virginia — it just isn’t there,” Gendzier said. “This pipeline is unnecessary.” 

In an article they published online, SELC asserted that the pipeline is not justified by challenging the initial arguments in favor of the ACP, such as that it is needed for power plants, that it would reduce utility bills for residents and that it would produce jobs. 

Whether the pipeline is legally justified or not, its proposal has raised questions of social justice and environmental racism. 

As the ACP court cases unfold, Gendzier emphasized the fallacy in the ACP’s mission to provide energy to those who need it and suggested a different motive. 

“The bottom line is that we do not need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to generate electricity in Virginia,” Gendzier said. 

Infant Mortality and Race

Examining Health Disparities in Charlottesville Past and Present

Words by Lucy Hoak and Spencer Philps. Photo illustrations by Max Patten.

In 2016, a group of researchers at U.Va. published an article in the scientific journal PNAS that explored the implicit racial bias of 222 white medical students and residents at the University.

Twenty-one percent of first-year medical students believed that black patients had stronger immune systems than white patients, and 14 percent of second-year students were of the opinion that black people’s nerve endings were less sensitive than that of whites’. Almost half of first-years and second-years, and one-quarter of resident medical students believed that the skin of a black person is thicker than that of a white person’s.

In that same year, 2016, a black baby born in the city of Charlottesville was nearly 10 times as likely to die in their first year of life than a white baby.

In 2016, Charlottesville’s infant mortality rate for African Americans, or the number of infant deaths before one year of age per every 1,000 live births, was 26.3. This rate was among the highest in the Commonwealth, while the same statistic for white children was just 2.6. This disparity is not at all unique to Charlottesville — nationally, black women have the highest rates of infant mortality out of any racial background.


The context of the systemic social and economic barriers that women of color are subjected to in the United States can explain this racial disparity in pregnancy outcomes, according to a study conducted by Duke University’s Center on Social Equity. Black women experience the effects of both a gender and racial wage gap and are disproportionately exposed to factors that are correlated with poor pregnancy outcomes, such as high levels of poverty and decreased access to healthcare, food and housing.

The city of Charlottesville is no stranger to such racial discrimination and inequities. The City-ordered razing of a prosperous black neighborhood at Vinegar Hill in the 1960s pushed hundreds of African-Americans into public housing. Last year, a New York Times and ProPublica investigation uncovered the rampant racial segregation that exists today in the City’s schools. A recent report presented by the Charlottesville police found that black residents were nearly nine times more likely than whites to be subjected to stop-and-frisk encounters.

However, such an institutional explanation cannot fully explain this phenomenon, for when factors such as levels of education and income are held constant between African Americans and whites, the infant mortality rate gap still exists. What else, then, explains the racial gap in infant mortality rates in this city? Mayor Nikuyah Walker, in an interview published last fall, referred to the city as aesthetically charming, but still a “very ugly-in-the-soul place.” And indeed, the infant mortality crisis in Charlottesville cannot be explained without examining the city’s “ugly soul,” which begins at the University Hospital.

Dr. Michael Swanberg is a nursing researcher and professor at the University who wrote his dissertation, entitled “A Canary in the Coal Mine: Exploring African-American Women’s Lived Experience of Childbirth,” on Charlottesville’s racial disparities in infant mortality.  

Tall and affable, he led us through the labyrinth of hallways in the University Hospital down to the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, where he wanted to show us primary sources that illustrated the hospital’s gruesome racist past. In the University’s infancy in the early 19th century, a wealth of evidence describes the routine practice of procuring cadavers for the medical school from African American cemeteries in the region, which would often have to be prepared for dissection by the University’s slaves.

“The graves of African Americans were robbed for that,” Swanberg said, “and the owners of enslaved people could sell their bodies — so even in death, the African American people didn’t have ownership of their own bodies.”

Even up until the 1950s and 60s, the hospital remained racially segregated. Black patients stayed in inferior and inadequate rooms with pipes that often leaked from overhead, and an emergency surfeit of patients meant hospital beds and patients would spill over into the hallway.

The legacy of discrimination and segregation prevails among older generations when they remember the old hospital — a legacy inherited by those visiting the hospital today.

Photo from University of Virginia Medical Alumni Newspaper showing pipes dripping onto patients.

“I was born in 1953, so anyone of my age remembers visiting their mother, father, grandmother; this is what it would it would look like,” Swanberg said. “One of the salient characteristics that people talk about — these water pipes, the heating pipes would drip on the patients. Every person that I talked to who’s over the age of 70 — that’s the one memory they take away from this is being in the basement, visiting their family members and having water drip on the patients from the water pipes in the basement.”

This traumatic legacy coupled with the implicit biases revealed in the 2016 PNAS study explains the disconnect that black patients feel in their experiences at the University Hospital, otherwise considered among the best hospitals in the Commonwealth.

The 42 African American women who participated in the focus groups which were the basis for “A Canary in the Coal Mine” often articulated a discomfort with being used as material for medical study, an experience not far removed from the days when African Americans’ graves were robbed for use in lab dissection. African Americans interviewed in the study preferred established doctors over inquisitive medical students.

“Like some people that do have bedside manner — they’re like 40 [years-old],” a participant said in “A Canary in the Coal Mine.” “They’re like way older because they’ve been doing it. And now they just like looking at you like ‘This is my science experiment, let me see what experience I can get out of it.’”

Participants also felt that given space constraints in the birthing room, priority was given to medical students over family members.

“And they have like a crew of students — the room is so crowded and the actual RN is sitting on the sink … It’s entirely too crowded,” a participant said. “I felt that they [the medical students] needed to leave … Like, if they have that many students in there, they can have that many family in there.”

The practices inherent to the pedagogy of medical school created a sense of mistrust by mothers. Swanberg described how the established protocol of having students establish safety by checking the patient’s identity — name, date of birth and number of children — can be at odds with the close relationship the patient hopes to have with their doctor. This practice in turn reinforces the stories from the past, while the medical student only thinks they are creating a safer environment.

“Like when I come in, you should know me by my first name. No matter that you have 3,000 women that you’re seeing. You should know me by my first name,” the participant said. “When you look at my chart, you should have a general idea of what’s going on with me and my pregnancy … I mean you don’t have to know my favorite color, but you should know that this is my first child, you shouldn’t ask me that when you come in the room.”

Swanberg relates these sentiments not only to the disturbing narratives of racism passed down from centuries ago, but also to even more recent narratives such as the destruction of Vinegar Hill.

“The local midwives, once the neighborhood was torn down, that whole social safety net was kind of moved to the hospital,” Swanberg said. “People really thought that medical students were giving the care, that again we kept hearing that narrative that we were being used as science experiments .… I don’t think we’re creating better stories, when we’re talking about health disparities. And if this was your memory, often what the women encountered at the hospital was just re-traumatized.”

Patients’ beds spill into the hallways in photo from 1953 University of Virginia Medical Alumni newsletter.

Despite such deep-rooted oppression, efforts are being made to reduce disparities in infant mortality rates and health disparities generally. Swanberg is hopeful about the projects and endeavors in the future, particularly given the increased public consciousness of past realities.

“The good part of this story a lot of people are working together and we’re trying, but we’re still not anywhere near where we need to be,” Swanberg said. “I think now we’re moving in the right direction, where for a while there we were moving in the wrong direction … a lot of people are working together.”

Yet, Virginians now know that their governor, Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist himself, wore blackface in medical school, and still holds office.


The issue of racial disparities in infant mortality caught the attention of local public health departments in 2008 following a district-wide community health assessment which was led by representatives from the University, Charlottesville and Albemarle Schools and Thomas Jefferson Health District. Since then, according to Kathryn Goodman, the public information officer for the Thomas Jefferson Health District which includes five healthcare facilities, a host of measures have been introduced to try to improve rates.

“From that [the results of the 2008 community health assessment], we deemed that we kind of needed to create a coalition that could collaborate and make bigger systems, changes and work together to address the issue, and kind of figure out the root cause of the issue and then work together to create programs and solutions and policies that could improve the birth outcomes,” Goodman said.

This led to the creation of the Improving Pregnancy Outcomes workgroup, a coalition of local stakeholders which strives to achieve goals such as increasing access to timely and adequate prenatal care and intervening on behalf of populations most in need.

Today, Goodman oversees the district’s IPO workgroup, which is in its 10th year and described the types of issues they address.

“There are handful of indicators for birth outcomes, and so we worked on different projects to address everything from reducing the rates of preterm births, low birthweight, infant mortality, of course, and other factors that play into pregnancies,” Goodman said. “So looking at increasing access to early entrance to prenatal care … and looking at enrollment in Plan First, which is a medicaid program that covers family planning services.”

The IPO workgroup puts out a resource guide compiling useful information and services for pregnant mothers in the area. On the guide, one can find resources like free support groups, low-cost or discounted transportation services or maternal education and support programs.

Goodman was optimistic about the progress the group had made and the plans for initiatives in the future, including looking at postpartum support services including maternal mental health.


Dr. Rachel Zaslow, a trained midwife and doula with a doctorate degree in feminist theory, is among those seeking to remedy the infant mortality crisis in Charlottesville. Upon moving to Charlottesville, its deeply ingrained segregation and corresponding health disparities made an impression on her.

“I was immediately struck by how segregated Charlottesville is,” Zaslow said. “There’s people living very different experiences of Charlottesville … you see it evidenced in restaurants and public spaces — and to me that almost always translates to higher parent/infant mortality and health outcomes.”

Zaslow found Charlottesville’s birth outcome disparities to be on par with the nationwide disparities, even when controlling for education and income.

“When you look at a black woman who’s Harvard-educated and eats only at Whole Foods, and her outcomes are just as bad, then we have to say, there’s something else going on. And the answer to that is almost always implicit bias in the case of medical care,” Zaslow said.

In a Cesarean section, Zaslow explained, some degree of pain is perceived as normal. Yet implicit bias means doctors are more likely to dismiss a black patient’s pain level as “normal” and forego additional testing, according to the 216 PNAS study.

“If a black woman has a C-section and says I’m in pain, the doctor is less likely to take her pain seriously than a white woman,” Zaslow said. “And a white woman — they may say, I believe you, let’s just run these labs, and, ‘Oh, we find out they’re internally bleeding, and we’re going to have operate again.’”

These disparities prompted Zaslow to start the Sister’s Keeper Collective in Charlottesville to educate women in the community as birth sisters, who then serve as advocates for their peers. In the four years since its founding, Sister’s Keeper has trained 65 women as birth sisters.

“Birth sisters work alongside a pregnant person helping them navigate the system, helping them ask questions to get the medical care they want or need, helping them create a birth plan to understand all the options, understand what options they might want, and understand that you can ask for these things,” Zaslow said.

This advocacy for women of color is key, given the implicit biases that may put women of color at risk, if communication is not two-sided and based on trust. In particular, the birth sister will work with the doctor and patient to ensure that the risks and benefits of any possible procedure are out in the open and clearly articulated.

“What we have heard doctors say is, ‘Well, the risk is that you don’t have your baby and the benefit is that you do,’” Zaslow said. “So the doula in that moment would say you can just explain to us a little more what would happen … and are there side effects.”

Ultimately, Sister’s Keeper strives to ensure that health care providers work as a team and allow the mother to make a real choice. The mother’s interests and desires are paramount — no bias is shown against choosing a natural birth, for example. After the birth, the birth sister continues to provide postpartum support.

“We do a 24-hour visit, a one week visit, and then as often as the mom needs postpartum to help her settled into a newborn care routine, to help her with breastfeeding,” Zaslow said. “We do screening for postpartum depression, and we make sure moms are linked into services that will help them to thrive with their new babies.”

Moreover, Sister’s Keeper provides services that aim to bridge the gap between services normally available to white women and women of color. Their new location on the Downtown Mall hosts childbirth education classes, prenatal yoga, babywearing classes, individual meetings with midwives, prenatal counseling and more, all centered on serving women of color.

“One of the things we heard from especially black moms, but women of color in general in Charlottesville, is a sense of disenfranchisement from most of the new mom spaces, so if you go to Bend Yoga on the downtown mall, which is a mommy/baby/prenatal center, it’s all white people in there,” Zaslow said. “Because of the history of segregation in Charlottesville, a black person may not feel comfortable walking into that space, so creating a space here that is a safe space has been an important thing.”

Incidentally, the yoga classes always sell out.

In providing these prenatal services, Sister’s Keeper aims to increase the percentage of African American mothers in Charlottesville who receive prenatal care in the first trimester of their pregnancy — now only 30 percent according to Zaslow.

“The greater piece are these pregnancy crisis centers of Virginia, which are pro-life centers masquerading as health centers,” Zaslow said. “So they’re not real health centers, they don’t have doctors or nurses on staff, they have church volunteers but they offer ultrasounds, free pregnancy testing, and counseling … What we have found is they’re serving over 80 percent of the black population in the first trimester, and what is happening is people think they are getting prenatal care … even though it’s not actual prenatal care, it feels and looks like prenatal care.”

Pregnancy testing is a critical service, as social services such as Medicaid and food stamps require an official verification letter of pregnancy to receive additional benefits. Because such pregnancy centers have been authorized to verify pregnancy, women can come and take what Zaslow calls “a dollar store pregnancy test” to receive social services, decreasing incentive to seek prenatal care at an established health center with medical staff. In response, Sister’s Keeper hopes to provide legitimate prenatal care, attracting women with the same services offered by the pregnancy centers.

“These kinds of things we’re hoping to combat by opening up this center,” Zaslow said.” We’ll be offering free pregnancy testing and verification letters, we’ll be offering the opportunity for people to get prenatal care here with a midwife and then transfer to a doctor if they want to deliver at a hospital.”

Sister’s Keeper also trains women to be advocates for the health of themselves and their babies. Zaslow views this lesson of self-advocacy as instrumental to helping the mother be an advocate throughout her life, thus having the ricochet effect of healing disparities far beyond birth.

“If a mom can be supported to have one, a positive birth experience, but two, the skills that she learns to advocate for herself, to ask questions, will carry forward in this ripple-effect way, through medical care for her children growing, to the school system, learning to ask and advocate for more,” Zaslow said. “You have a right to have more and ask more — this is the toolbox for how you do it.”

Such a ripple effect is crucial because Zaslow says issues of injustice must be attacked at their core, as they are intertwined.

“In the words of Staceyann Chin, all oppression is connected,” Zaslow said. “You can’t separate one from another. They’re all crises in Charlottesville, and they all come down to segregation, a history of explicit and implicit racism and systemic oppression of people of color, both at U.Va. and people in the city.”

Silently Struggling

How students navigate the barriers and doors to mental health access at the University

Words by Molly Wright. Photos and Illustration by Max Patten.

*The names in this story have been changed to protect the sources’ privacy.

A picture-perfect image of a student at the University exists within the minds of other students as someone they constantly have to live up to or strive to become — a student who is double-majoring in rewarding and rigorous subjects, excelling in their classes, leading on-Grounds organizations, having fun every weekend and making it all look easy.

“I definitely think there is an unspoken level of success,” said third year College student Sarah Nolan. “I feel like you’ve made it [as a University student] when you are involved in at least two organizations and you’re on the executive board for at least one of those. You’re on the Dean’s List the whole year. You probably have a job or some way to get money and you also have a great job or internship lined up.”

This desire to be perfectly well-rounded usually leaves students feeling overwhelmed, stressed and confused as to why they’re not keeping up with their peers, when their peers may very well be struggling as well.

Illustration by Max Patten.

“U.Va. is a highly-ranked institution, and students get here because they’ve been extremely successful for all of their academic careers and especially in high school, having been involved in lots of things,” said Nicole Ruzek, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University. “So what we tend to see is a lot of students coming in and striving still to be the best and to get into all the different clubs and majors that they want to be in and not always being successful like they were in high school. That can create some identity confusion and just kind of a re-evaluation of you know, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I really want?’ and ‘What’s important to me?’”

Ruzek said that while this “process of self-reflection” often goes well, in other cases these questions lead students to a lower sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem that can then trigger mental illness. The effects of mental illness and the nastier side of the University’s culture of competition and perfection is something that Alex* has seen more than once as a first year Resident Advisor at the University.  

“Around exams, one girl did not get into a leadership position for First Year Council, and she was threatening to throw herself in front of a bus,” Alex said. “Her friends found me, and we ran over there. She was sitting on the side of the street, and I ended up talking to her for 30 minutes with those girls.”

What Alex saw from this girl, they said, was the need to be perfect and the desire to fit the “U.Va. mold” that they have recognized many more times in other first-years who were also struggling.

“It’s usually about fitting in at U.Va, not feeling like they belong,” Alex said. “I don’t know how to correct that at U.Va, but I do think that there’s a lot that can be done about changing what we perceive as success and perfection. I try to tell people that you can be successful in so many different ways.”

The pressures of success ride on the backs of University students almost every day because, as Ruzek mentioned earlier, many students have already been successful for most of their lives. The idea of not being the best or even failing once in a while seems detrimental.

“There is an atmosphere at U.Va that discourages acknowledging [anxiety, depression and stress],” said an anonymous student survey respondent conducted by abcd magazine over Google form to which 29 students responded. “At U.Va, it seems as though every student is expected to have it all together all the time — make the best grades, be the most social, and be the most involved. In reality, no one has it all together, but no one ever dares express that. U.Va students hide behind a facade of perfection. I don’t think it’s only students’ faults though, I think the University in general doesn’t want to admit any kind of fault, or instance where we aren’t the best. They don’t want to compromise U.Va.’s reputation.”


So what do students do when they feel they can no longer handle being under constant stress or sense that their struggles might be the beginnings of a mental illness like anxiety or depression? The University offers free therapy sessions for students with Counseling and Psychological Services at the Elson Student Health Center, yet gaining access to the mental health resources at CAPS has proved difficult for many students.

Each year, CAPS sees approximately 2,000 students and has around 13,000 in-house appointments, but these numbers do not account for the amount of brief screening phone calls CAPs makes, which Ruzek cited as the way most students enter their services.

“Most of the students, they do an initial phone call, and it’s a script that we follow,” Ruzek said. “We know it’s not that fun for students to do because it’s you know very scripted, but it’s the best way for us to kind of look at everyone and see what level of functioning they’re at — get a sense of if they’re eating, if they’re sleeping, are they going to classes, are they using substances, are they having any thoughts of self-harm — that kind of thing.”

During the phone call, CAPS employees determine if the specific student fits into one of four categories, according to Ruzek. The first category is for students during an emergency or crisis, and CAPS will ask them to come into the center right away. A student may not be immediately in crisis, but is still not functioning well, and as CAPS’ second category, they are asked to do an “urgent intake.” For an ugent intake, although the student might not be seen by CAPS the day they call or even the day after, they will not have to wait more than five to seven days to be seen by CAPS.

A student who has a “standard issue” for CAPS falls into their third category. This might be a relationship breakup or “having some anxiety maybe having a few depressive symptoms but they’re still going to class and doing O.K.,” Ruzek said. The wait time for an appointment at CAPS for students like these during the middle of the semester can be up to three weeks before they are seen.

About 2,000 students use CAPS each year. Photo by Max Patten.

The last category that CAPS assesses is a student who either does not want to wait for an appointment at CAPS. Some students already know they have a mental health issue that they had been treated for at home by a psychologist or therapist and would like a similar kind of treatment. Others may complete a mental health screening and realize they want a therapist faster than CAPS can provide. For these students, CAPS tries to give them referrals for other psychologists or psychiatrists in the community.

As a precedent, CAPS also tells students that it can only offer up to eight sessions because of the high demand for appointments and there only being 18 counselors working for the 2,000 students they see each year.  This is a higher ratio of counselors to students than the one to 1000 ratio the International Association of Counseling Services recommends. However, the brevity of sessions, along with a lack of available appointments, has made many students upset with their services.

“I have a friend and she went to CAPS five or six times and she really liked the person that she worked with — she felt like it was helping,” Lanier* said. “Then they told her, ‘O.K, we can’t really help you anymore.” They tried to find her someplace else to go and they actually did find her someplace, but like she doesn’t have a car, she has to take three buses to get there and she just doesn’t click with the person. She just feels like she wasted all that time getting to know the other person at CAPS, so it’s just problematic.”


Even in times of crisis, the resources at CAPS have fallen short for students.

“I remember one time this girl was really struggling, and we were on the phone with her parents because she was going to spend the night in the E.R.” Alex* said. “A person from CAPS wasn’t available so the police escorted her to the E.R., and she was trying to make an appointment for CAPS just after, but they were like, ‘We won’t be able to see you for a week because we’re overpacked.’ I feel like they’re understaffed.”

Other students voiced their concerns and complaints about a disconnect between the brief screening phone call and the follow up in-person appointment that can happen weeks later.

“I wasn’t seen in an actual session, but I did the process of being screened to be seen twice,” said an anonymous student who voluntarily answered a survey posted on Facebook by the reporter. “Both times, it took two weeks to schedule a phone call for them to see what type of service would be best. Then it was two further weeks until they could get me in. The first time I did the process I convinced myself I was fine and just overreacting in the two weeks between me scheduling the call and actually doing it so I canceled it. The second time I did the same but after having the diagnosing call. I definitely needed help both times and the waiting periods created such a barrier to seeking help.”

Other students reported that they have benefited from seeking help and using the resources at CAPS.

“I gained a lot of skills and new ways to manage my anxiety,” said one anonymous student respondent. “My therapist was very intentional and seemed very proud to see my improvement. I greatly appreciated my sessions at CAPS.”

CAPS also has more than 12 group therapy classes in an effort to expand the number of students that can be seen by their services. Some of these offerings include a mindfulness meditation hour each week, a “Hoos Stress Less” group and groups for those needing support with substance abuse or eating disorders. However, students like Emma* have commented that the dynamic is different in group therapy compared to individual sessions.

“I’m going in for group therapy this semester, but it’s very odd just because they recommend that you do it for eight sessions and you’re not allowed to talk with the people that you see in group outside of group,” Emma said. “They don’t want you to develop extremely close relationships with anyone and then for that to effect the group dynamic — for them to feel like they’re getting more support from another peer. It’s just very odd — the fact that you can’t discuss everything that’s said in group because it involves other people’s lives and issues is just very strange because I was personally seeking out one-on-one treatment with a professional at the same time. Though it’s understandable that their  resources are very much strained — it’s not necessarily therapy in the same way that we think of therapy.”

CAPS is attempting to expand, but the details of expansion may not be clear for the next two years. Photo by Max Patten.

According to Ruzek, CAPS is currently trying to expand its resources for students with the construction of a new student health and wellness center on Brandon Avenue in the next two years, and do not have a budget yet. They hope to hire more therapists, but do not know how many, and have more wellness focused offerings, even a contemplative space with relaxation and mindfulness resources. Ruzek said she would like CAPS to focus more on helping promote students’ well-beings at the University so that fewer students would reach the breaking point of needing urgent care at CAPS.

“I think what we would all like to do is more prevention-type work and more wellness focused work, so instead of waiting until someone’s developed anxiety or depression,” Ruzek said. “We have a group called Enhance that’s based more on positive psychology and really helping people to build on their resilience. We’d like to be doing more of that kind of work to keep people healthy versus just addressing them when they’re not healthy.”

Student groups such as the University’s chapter of the National Mental Health Alliance, a national grassroots mental health organization, the website group IfYoureReadingThis.org and Peer Health Educators also provide resources and safe spaces for those struggling with mental health to find a community and share their stories.

“As of right now we are mainly just doing activities, trying to get people together so they can share their story, talk about this and find a group where they can feel comfortable sharing and having a dialogue,” said Wendy Wang, second-year College student and president of National Alliance on Mental Illnesses.

Wang also mentioned how NAMI is planning a panel on the topic of minority students and mental health stigma and said that she personally hopes to have a resources panel for first-years and exchange students next fall with representatives from CAPS, Madison House and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center.

“NAMI is trying to fill a lot of gaps,” said Grace Leffler, second-year College student and NAMI member. “We’re trying to re-group and really look at how we can be advocates for mental health. We’re going to try to pair with IfYoureReadingThis and potentially other mental health-based groups to bring more awareness and also strengthen the ties between these different advocacy groups. If we’re all on the same page and aware of what everyone else is doing then we can better focus on our side of the court.”


Expansion is a common theme among the mental health resources at the University. The website IfYoureReadingThis.org, founded by first-year graduate student of Medicine Alexandra Pental, plans to not only develop its presence at the University more but also expand to other universities such as the University of Florida and Northwestern University. These plans are being enacted by the current president of IfYoureReadingThis.org, fourth-year College Student Alexander Hyldmar.  

Pentel started IfYoureReadingThis.org during her years as an undergraduate student to provide students with letters from their peers about mental health, stigmas, substance abuse or anything else people would like to write. She said the idea behind the website came from the need to have a support system of friends who were comfortable sharing their struggles and stories together. Pentel also stressed her excitement over having faculty members write letters as well to break down the barriers between students and the administration.

“I think it’s really great that Dean Groves and President Ryan wrote letters,” Pentel said. “Dean Groves’ was a lot more personal than I expected, being like, ‘hey I’ve struggled with this, I went here too, just know you’re not alone and just because I’m Dean Groves doesn’t mean that I’m immune to that.’”

While the student team behind IfYoureReadingThis.org cannot provide professional help, they have been trained and started a peer counseling group for students who may not be comfortable enough to talk to CAPS yet or just want to talk to a friend, according to Hyldmar. Pentel also said CAPS refers students to their website, and IfYoureReadingThis.org then helps students get connected with resources at CAPS.

“We want to create less of mental health resource nodes around U.Va and more like a net that can hopefully catch everyone,” Pentel said.

The word has spread around Grounds about IfYoureReadingThis.org as Hyldmar says they are seeing more and more submissions for letters from people the team does not know. The group also provides its subscribers with a mental health newsletter every so often and has a list of resources at the University and in the Charlottesville community on their website. Pentel said they have had conversations with Dean Groves about expanding the conversation surrounding mental health at first year orientation, seeing as discussions and modules about sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse are already included in the first year education process.

“Our first aim is to have a newsletter, like an email that’s sent out to all first-years or all undergrads,” Hyldmar said. “Then next step is maybe integrating a mental health module at orientation.”

“We want to let first-years know that U.Va cares about this and just let them know what’s there,” Pentel said. “I think a lot of times the only thing people know about is CAPS but there’s a lot in Charlottesville specifically for U.Va students.”

The hope from organizations like NAMI and IfYoureReadingThis.org is that those struggling at U.Va will not feel like they are struggling alone — that students will know about the vast array of sources available to them and see that many students at the University struggle with stress, anxiety and depression. In the Google form survey conducted by abcd magazine, 100 percent of its responders said that they thought anxiety, stress and depression were problems at the University.

“Honestly before like three years ago when I arrived at the University, mental health was not spoken about,” Hyldmar said. “I just remember that so clearly and over time, not only IfYoureReadingThis.org, but just like everything — other students, other organizations have created this community where people are more comfortable. I think we want to reach this level where everyone, not only a certain group of students, but everyone can be comfortable talking about it.”


*Names have been changed for anonymity

If you or anyone else you know is struggling with anxiety, depression or any other mental health concerns please call CAPS at 434-924-5556, the UVA HelpLine at 434-295-TALK, or dial 911 for emergency situations.

For more resources see: IfYoureReadingThis.orgStudent Health Links, NAMI

Catching the Shadow

The ‘Kitty’ Foster Memorial

Words by Kasey Roper. Photos by Riley Walsh.

“At this place, on the site of Catherine Foster’s home, this ‘Shadow Catcher’ links the visible with the unseen even as it pulls the eyes to the sky; it creates a shadowy, grid-like outline of the house that once stood at this location,” reads a plaque directly outside the Shadow Catcher Memorial honoring the household of Foster, a free black woman who bought the property in 1833.

The metal structure is between Nau Hall and Olson Student Health, almost directly behind what is now New Cabell Hall and Old Cabell Hall. There are cylindrical metal poles holding up the “roof” of the memorial — a collection of thin, flat metal beams that criss-cross over the ground above what used to be the home of Catherine “Kitty” Foster and her family. These structures cast a shadow in the shape of the house, reminding us of its presence.

However, the history of the Foster Site was largely unknown prior to 1993. It was only when construction workers beginning to expand a parking lot where Nau Hall stands discovered evidence of burials — coffins and remains — that the history of the land was evaluated. The remains were left undisturbed, but the historic investigation began.


“That was the beginning of the consciousness of the Foster family,” said Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect.

A task force spearheaded by the Department of Anthropology and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro- American and African Studies was formed to do initial archeological and historical research into the site. The team determined that the University had an obligation to further investigate the site for historical and local significance. Rivanna Archeological Services, a local firm run by two alumni of the University, was brought in to complete a formal archaeological survey, which was estimated to cost somewhere between $50,000 and $150,000 in the task force’s original notes. These records can be found in the Special Collections Library at Peabody Hall.

What initial archaeological and historical research discovered — buttons, thimbles, dolls, cobblestones, bowls and more — revealed the life of a free black seamstress and her family.  

Rivanna Archeological Services’ work led to the Foster Site being added to the Virginia Landmarks Register for archeology as well as the National Register for Historic Places.

Foster started her business working as a seamstress and launderer for students and faculty of the University, which was a job previously done mostly by enslaved laborers behind the Pavilions. In the 19th century, laundry was not as simple as it is today — rather than tossing clothes into a machine and coming back to toss them into another machine an hour later, washing clothes was a very labor-intensive, all-day task. Workers sorted clothes, carried buckets of water, built fires to boil the water, stirred and washed each large load of laundry, scrubbed each individual piece of clothing, rinsed the clothes, rung out extra water from them by hand, hung them to dry and occasionally mended tears and sewed buttons onto the fabric.

The entire design of the original Foster Site — originally known as the Venable Lane Site — was directed toward these laundering practices. There is evidence of a large cobbled work area near the house to prevent the ground from becoming muddy while working with large amounts of water.


Foster was an important presence just south of the University during its formative years. Not only was she an entrepreneur, but she was a free land-owning black woman as well. During the 1830’s, it was rare for African American women to own property, even in upper Southern states like Virginia. Foster purchased 2 ⅛ acres of land in 1833. Three generations of Fosters — all headed by women — lived on and improved the land, even renting it out to tenants, until 1906, when it was sold to white land developers.

In the early 20th century, the University purchased land around the Lawn in an attempt to hide the black community.

“Up to the 1890s, it is a neighborhood that is mixed in terms of who lives there,” said Kirt von Daacke, co-chair of both the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation. “It’s not all free, it’s not all enslaved, not all black, not all white.”

As the Jim Crow Era of segregation solidified, the neighborhood became predominantly black.

This community was vital to the functioning of the University because enslaved and minimally-paid laborers alike built and maintained Grounds. This was not by accident. The opening of the University in 1825, von Daacke said, attracted a diverse group of workers who settled just south of the Lawn in what is referred to as “Canada.”

The term Canada appears in census reports from the 1850s as well as in notes from Board of Visitors’ meetings during the same time frame. The exact origin and meaning of the nickname Canada is unknown. Some theorize that it pays homage to the country that housed runaway slaves prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Others argue that it is a degrading term meant to emphasize the different, foreign nature of these “other” people who supported the University.

“Canada is a kind of a derisive reference to free people who [the University faculty and students] think really should be enslaved,” von Daacke said.

The Fosters lived in Canada — they’re listed as residents of it in census records — and thus had deep ties to the community and the people living there. The 12 remains found during construction were initially thought to be part of a Foster family graveyard, but as more remains were found — 32 in all — researchers realized that it was more likely a community graveyard.

Canada remained a community that housed those who supported the functioning of the University. However, just as a shadow changes its composition throughout the course of a day, the community’s composition shifted from one of a largely mixed neighborhood to a predominantly black neighborhood over the course of the nineteenth century.

This was difficult because Canada was not University-owned property, so the University really had no control over the interactions students had with the community.

The University saw the community as a “pest hole,” according to von Daacke, and sought to limit University students’ involvement with it.

When choosing between three separate designs for the South Lawn — only one of which closed off the Lawn — the Board of Visitors decided on the one that closed off the Lawn. The result of that decision is Old Cabell Hall, which New Cabell Hall was eventually built around. These buildings would have blocked sight of and access to Canada from the University as well.


The relationship between residents of Canada and the University is complicated because of racism, white supremacy and mutual dependence. The University needed residents to function, just as the residents need the University for work. Students also relied on Canada for products and activities they were prohibited from doing on Grounds.

For example, Canada was where students went to drink alcohol, gamble and interact with their enslaved servants, who were not allowed to live on Grounds. They also went to Canada to practice shooting their firearms.

Additionally, residents of Canada were employed by the University for various tasks, including cobbling, cooking, cleaning and more.

Von Daacke explained how this tension between the residents of Canada and the University — both free and enslaved — transferred to working at the University.

“To take those jobs is to require that [the residents of Canada] interact with — on a daily basis — hundreds of white would-be masters and young U.Va. students who are in the middle of identity formation as the master class, who feel very comfortable treating every person of color they meet as an enslaved person and using violence to dominate them,” von Daacke said.

Interactions with the University, therefore, did not come without risks for the residents of Canada.


The Shadow Catcher Memorial represents the story of a woman who stood in the face of racism and white supremacy, took advantage of several economic opportunities and succeeded in creating an established, private home for herself and her family for generations.

“The [memorial was built as] recognition that this is really kind of an amazing story,” Hogg said. “She’s a free black woman in the 1830s in Charlottesville. She had enough money to purchase that property when many of the people around her were renting, and she and her family managed to own the property for 75 years.”

He concluded by calling Foster “an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Yet the memorial also represents the enduring Canada community, a place of interracial coexistence as well as a crucial part of understanding the University’s relationship with the larger Charlottesville area. This is where the University’s interest was peaked when initial investigations into the site were ongoing. Not only were the Foster Site and the Canada community important to the development of the University, but they were also important to the complex tale of slavery, racism, freedom and the tightrope walked in between.


If the memorial is a literal shadow, how can we catch it?

Upon first glance, the site does not declare its significance loudly, as the Berlin Wall outside Alderman Library does. Second-year nursing student Rosie Ix passed by the Shadow Catcher on her way to class in McLeod Hall.

“I didn’t realize this was a memorial,” Ix said. “I guess I’m always walking through here just trying to get somewhere.”

Lack of awareness about the site raises questions about the University’s efforts to make its history known — especially its history tied to racism and slavery. Von Daacke explained that the University has increased its efforts to make its history with racism and slavery transparent. The Shadow Catcher Memorial, he suggests, is not well known because of the design of the South Lawn.

Jefferson Park Avenue divides Nau and Gibson Hall from Central Grounds, and students typically use a bridge to travel between the two areas. The memorial is located on the Nau and Gibson side, away from the bridge, so students are not typically positioned to walk past the Shadow Catcher Memorial. Conversely, the Berlin Wall Memorial is in Central Grounds, where many students, faculty, locals and visitors alike have more opportunities to walk past it.

Matilda Olbin, a third-year exchange student from Sweden studying Sociology, is not an expert on the memorial, but is generally interested in history. She thinks memorials allow history to be interpreted and not just lectured or rehearsed.

“It’s more solid, I guess you can make your own idea about it,” Olbin said. “If someone tells you about it, it’s gonna be their story.”

To Olbin, it is more inviting to experience history in the present. That is what the Shadow Catcher is trying to evoke — a visual perceived differently by each passerby in each moment.


Even in the early stages of the creation of the Foster Site, the Charlottesville community was actively involved in the conversation of what to do and how. Meetings were held to receive feedback from the community, and press releases were given to update the community on archeological findings and decisions, such as the decision to halt construction for the parking lot until further research could be done.

The University is still engaged with the Charlottesville community and thinks critically about its relationship to the area. For example, President Jim Ryan created a Community Working Commission last October made up of local residents to identify key issues within the area and help address them together.

The top issue listed in a report released in January is affordable housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. This is relevant to the University because if it does not provide enough housing, then it pushes people off Grounds and drives prices up for everyone.  

The other top issue, non-living wages for University employees, has a direct link to the early years of the University and the Jim Crow Era, when it had no obligation to pay high wages.

“They [did] not feel compelled to, nor [did] they have to, pay a living wage,” von Daacke asserts. “This is a legacy we’re still talking about in Charlottesville today where [there is] steep income inequality.”


The Shadow Catcher is a reminder of the University’s deep historical connection to the local community, as well as to institutions of racism and white supremacy.

Other memorials in Charlottesville also directly connect to these institutions, evoking controversy over the glorification of pro-slavery figures. Most notably, the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park has been debated since 2016 when city councilor Wes Bellamy proposed a commission to discuss the statue and local African-American high school students petitioned City Council, asking for the statue’s removal because they felt it was offensive. The debate reached a violent head when the Unite the Right Rally came to Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017 partly to protest the statue’s removal.

On Grounds, the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the West Lawn was vandalized with the words “Racist+Rapist” criticizing Jefferson’s slave-owning practices the night before the 275th anniversary of his birth. Both memorials have sparked charged discussions and confrontations about how to best represent Charlottesville’s history of racism.

But the Shadow Catcher memorial represents a different kind of narrative coming out of the same history — one of resilience.

“It’s an amazing success story when you look at Catherine Foster,” von Daacke said, because she succeeded despite being surrounded by “pro-slavery ideologues.”  

This shadow the memorial casts is our history. As time passes and things change, so does the placement of the shadow around the Foster House. The position of the sun changes our perception, as well as the prominence, of the history present there. Yet we are also attached to it directly — we cannot separate it from ourselves nor our present.

There are certainly times, however, when we cannot see the shadow, when we are not aware of our past or how it affects us.

“I pass here every day almost, but I’ve never stopped except for now,” Olbin explained.

There are other times when our past and present line up nearly exactly. This overlap of time and space is physically represented by the Shadow Catcher.

“Every once in a while, the light is such that … the shadow cast is the exact footprint of the house,” Hogg said.

In these moments, the sun is in the exact position to cast a shadow on the still-present, though hidden, foundation of the Foster House. In some moments, we understand clearly the effects of our history on the present.

“The Shadow Catcher is meant to evoke the presence of the house, but also reflect transience because the house is gone and all that’s left is a shadow,” Hogg said.