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.”