An opportunity to memorialize Vinegar Hill

Charlottesville community should play active role in renaming courthouse

Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) recently proposed to rename the Charlottesville Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in honor of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The building is located in the area formerly known as Vinegar Hill, which, prior to redevelopment in the 1960s, had been home to Charlottesville’s black business district. A petition created by Architecture Prof. Frank Dukes is seeking to rename the building in accordance with the history of Vinegar Hill. Former residents of the area and community members should have the opportunity to participate in renaming the building.

Vinegar Hill stood as the vibrant centerpiece of African-American life in Charlottesville, containing businesses, churches and homes of black Charlottesville residents. As a component of Charlottesville’s discriminatory “urban renewal” process in the 1960s, the city uprooted Vinegar Hill residents and consequently displaced a community which had been a rich part of Charlottesville’s heritage. Although the decision went to a city-wide vote, disenfranchised black residents at the time did not have any control over the treatment of their own neighborhood.

The Charlottesville community has made some effort to memorialize the history of Vinegar Hill and its residents. Last December, the Charlottesville City Council voted to rename the western end of the Downtown Mall to Vinegar Hill Park. The plan includes informational signs to recognize the area’s history, as well as a potential mural. Although a sincere means of memorializing Vinegar Hill, the city now has an opportunity to do something more significant. Allowing community members to participate in the renaming of the courthouse offers an additional avenue for proper recognition of past injustice.

As Dukes stated, the effort to incorporate the community’s history in the naming process does not reflect a position on Scalia’s contribution to the Charlottesville community. As a law professor, Scalia influenced the lives of many University alumni and Charlottesville residents. Though such influence deserves recognition, it should not take priority over the memorialization of Vinegar Hill’s history given that the courthouse is located in the heart of the former neighborhood.

Residents of Vinegar Hill experienced significant discrimination from the Charlottesville municipal government and white community. In addition to the commendable steps the city has taken to recognize its wrongdoings, former residents and community members should be involved in renaming the courthouse. Without such action, the city falters in its mission to recognize and combat Charlottesville’s history of racism.

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