Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. I graduated from the University of Virginia (UVA) in 2005. But, to be honest, I was not keen on living in Charlottesville from my initial visit. As a fresh transplant from Southern California, I had negative perceptions about living in the Southern part of the United States.
After making the decision to attend UVA, I tried to keep an open mind about my experiences. Outside of the classroom, I remember feeling a distinction among different races. As an Asian-American of Indian and Bengali descent, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin from time to time, but I didn’t know how to express these thoughts. I remember my numerous visits to Monticello, listening to tour operators gloss over the history of Sally Hemmings. Talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion felt like a taboo subject that was not to be addressed.
As a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional, I have visited Charlottesville a number of times since 2005, and I have witnessed and personally experienced change taking place. Charlottesville has been engaging the community in progressive dialogue and has taken great strides to creating a welcoming place for visitors from all backgrounds and identities.
It is no secret that Charlottesville has received much attention since the white supremacist rallies that took place in August 2017. That event sparked necessary dialogues about systemic racism, and the critical need to create a space that genuinely harbors belonging for all community members.
Progressive Discussions Are Taking Place
Monticello, Highland, and the University of Virginia have taken extraordinary measures to thoroughly research and offer more honest accounts about race relations and the treatment of enslaved labor to construct and operate these historical sites.
Monticello openly addresses the complex nature of slavery in a variety of ways. The visitor center exhibits in-depth information about the Hemmings family and familial ties to Thomas Jefferson. Exploring Slavery at Monticello provides online and in-person educational avenues to learn about the multifaceted dynamics of enslaved people during that time period. Monticello also shares oral histories and memoirs from descendants in an effort to genuinely uncover important truths of American history. The operators of Highland, the home of James Monroe have openly acknowledged the contradictory viewpoints of this president who advocated to abolish slavery yet enslaved over 250 persons in his lifetime. In person and virtual tours are available to learn about the sequence of history from this time period. Visitors have the opportunity to gain greater insight into the lives of some of the enslaved people through biographies that have been uncovered. Efforts to reveal more information about the people of Highland are continuous and updated as research progresses and is validated.
The University of Virginia has initiated numerous programs to reconcile the complexities of an educational institution that is revered for academic and athletic programs, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and built by enslaved labor. A Memorial to Enslaved Laborers has been erected on the Grounds to acknowledge and honor the 4,000+ individuals who built and maintained operations of the University for more than four decades. What started as a student led effort in 2010 is now an honored site to educate University attendees, the community, and visitors about a painful past in an effort to transform perceptions of bias in the present and future.
As a part of ongoing diverse, equitable, and inclusive actions, the University is contextualizing the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Rotunda and removing and relocating the George Rogers Clark statue depicting this Revolutionary War general on a horse overlooking three Native American individuals. A taskforce has been established to address racial equity within the University, and a variety of programs are being developed to provide Alumni with opportunities to learn about race, gender, and belonging.
Originally built to serve as a segregated high school, the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center now serves as a historic institution educating visitors about the rich heritage and legacy of the African-American community of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Visitors have the opportunity to view permanent exhibits such as Pride Overcomes Prejudice, an exhibition that uses oral and written histories of African Americans who participated in the fight for racial equality over six eras of the school’s history. The Center participates in community events to activate dialogue about racial equity in addition to planning special events, leading interactive tours, and commissioning temporary gallery exhibits for visitors seeking to learn more about race and belonging in the United States.
The Charlottesville Pride Community Network has been creating educational dialogue and safe spaces for people who identify as LGBTQIA since 2011. This volunteer network has organized a variety of activities starting from the first pride festival in 2012 in Charlottesville, to offering safe space training for businesses. LGBTQIA friendly places are prominent throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle County. LGBTQIA community leaders have also identified Charlottesville as a place where LGBTQIA-owned businesses can boom.
Charlottesville and Albemarle County have taken thoughtful measures to ensure people of all abilities can travel and experience daily activities with ease. Many crosswalks and sidewalks are ADA compliant through the addition of visual and audible signals, bright and textured ground tiles, and ramps where appropriate.
The Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) has created a thorough rider’s guide to accommodate the needs of community members and visitors who need additional assistance. The Downtown Trolley, is a free service which takes passengers through a loop around the University of Virginia to the Downtown Mall.
The Trail at Riverview Park and The Trails at Monticello are some of the outdoor recreation areas and trails that offer ADA compliant access. This guide developed by the City of Charlottesville offers information on the 10+ places that are fully ADA accessible.
Diverse Culinary Offerings
Charlottesville’s culinary scene is globally inspired and can cater to any palate. Bang! an Asian inspired tapas restaurant and South African inspired, Shebeen Pub and Braai have been local institutions for almost two decades.
A wealth of black and minority owned businesses offer catering services, homestyle menus, and delectable desserts. Mel’s Café is a family run business that has been making homemade soul food to order for over 15 years. Allen’s Scottish Shortbread bakes their own batches of shortbread using a recipe that has been passed down through family in Scotland. Partners in life and business, Jason Becton and Patrick Evans created MarieBette Café and Bakery out of their passion for creating food with simple and seasonal ingredients.
Learn more about dining options in Charlottesville here. The inclusive spirit of entrepreneurship is apparent through the diversity of culinary choices, and through the stories of each restaurateur.
IX Art Park
The IX Art Park beautifully incorporates their mission to provide accessible art, culture, and programming to community members and visitors from all backgrounds. Located in a former site of the Frank Ix & Sons textile factory near downtown Charlottesville, the art park is one of the coolest places to be a kid, play with your kids, to enjoy free music with community members, and to find inspiration through expressions of art.
Interactive and immersive exhibits such as the Looking Glass are available for all ages, abilities and socioeconomic statuses. Events are designed in collaboration with local Latinx and African-American artists and leaders to represent community voices and to provide opportunities for multiculturalism to thrive. The energy of this space is everything positive: vibrant, welcoming, and inspiring.
An Exemplary Example of Progress
Charlottesville is one of many places in the United States confronting topics pertaining to systemic racism, equity, and inclusion. These ongoing issues are challenging to navigate, and members within the Charlottesville community have taken progressive strides that can be seen and felt throughout.
I admire the human effort to acknowledge the hard truths and inequities of the past, and I admire the human dialogues about diversity and inclusion that are taking place and will continue to take place in Charlottesville.
I encourage you to visit this beautiful town with an open mind; to learn about and honor the enslaved individuals who are finally acknowledged, and to support local businesses whose stories exemplify community togetherness.