Leadership & Governance

In Charlottesville, UVa Grapples With Its History and the Alt-Right

July 30, 2017

Charlottesville, Va., established a commission last year to deal with questions about its history on racial issues, and how that past is memorialized in its public spaces. One of the panel's recommendations, which was endorsed by a 3-to-2 vote of the City Council, called for the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate leader. Many critics saw that monument, which was installed in a city park during the Jim Crow era, as marking the space for white people only.

The planned removal of the statue is now tied up in court. Meanwhile, Charlottesville has become a battleground: As the University of Virginia and its home city hold difficult discussions about how to come to terms with their histories, extremist groups see opportunity. People associated with the so-called alt-right, a loose movement known for promoting white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and misogynistic views, plan to “March on Charlottesville” on August 12.

The city and the university are inextricably linked, and activists on UVa's campus are bracing for the march. In the following interview with The Chronicle, UVa's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, who announced in January that she planned to step down, discussed the institution's history and its role in the debates that have recently taken place in Charlottesville. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q. Charlottesville has been in the national spotlight for deciding to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, as well as a recent Ku Klux Klan rally in which protesters were tear-gassed. It got national attention. So what's going on in Charlottesville right now?

A. Well, Charlottesville is interesting, I think, because there's certainly a troubled racial history in this part of Virginia. Obviously, there was slavery. Then there was the Civil War. After that, there was Reconstruction, and in the Jim Crow era, massive resistance. So there have been a lot of things in the troubled history of this part of Virginia, and indeed much of the South.

But we have a progressive City Council that studied the issue of removing two statues — the one of Robert E. Lee and the one of Stonewall Jackson — that sit downtown. This was also happening in New Orleans, but in New Orleans they were just removed — bang. There was no time for protest and conversation and discussion. It's been more than a yearlong discussion in Charlottesville. And the decision of the City Council, 3 to 2, to remove the statues was immediately enjoined by a judge for six months. So that gives us six months of time to hash over the issues again and talk about it.

I think that there are a lot of issues that don't always get reported in the press. One of these is the sense of African-American citizens in the community that glorifying these Confederate heroes glosses over the cause of slavery that they were fighting for. It was clear in the Klan rally that they saw the removal of the statues as something symbolic of a far larger and, to them, more threatening issue, which was the removal of white history. I don't agree with that view, but I thought it was useful to understand that's where they were coming from.

Q. Some of the folks I've talked to in town have said that today's problems go back to Thomas Jefferson and his idea of white superiority and democracy, and that it's not a coincidence that Charlottesville continues to make national news. Is Charlottesville a microcosm of what's going on in the United States, and if it is, what does it mean to the university?

A. I don't know that Charlottesville is a microcosm. But I do think that here you see a clash of red and blue cultures in a way that you don't in a lot of places. And I think that makes a difference.

Contrast Richmond, which is 70 miles away. Richmond also has a lot of Confederate statues. But Richmond began some years ago by also commemorating its African-American history. They put a statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. Last week they unveiled a statue of Maggie Walker. So Richmond has approached this a little differently. It's not just a matter of subtracting. It's a matter of adding.

Charlottesville took a different approach, and I think that's where a lot of the problem lies. I would not make this into something bigger than it is.

Q. So some critics might say that the university has taken a while to own up to its past. And other universities have been tackling this as well. What are the dynamics in play? And what is the most valuable work moving forward?

A. So in 2013 I appointed the President's Commission on Slavery and the University precisely to look at the part of our history we didn't know. And they've done some remarkable things in just four years. They've uncovered several slave sites that we weren't aware of. We've had the opportunity to curate those, contextualize them, and provide information for the public about it. We've redone the curation inside the Rotunda to talk about how slaves helped to build that. We have a walking trail of African-American history. We've named two buildings for enslaved families that were here at the university, Gibbons Hall and Skipwith Hall.

And I think maybe most interesting, at the last board meeting, the board approved the conceptual design for a memorial to enslaved laborers, which would be located at the part of the university most closely, just geographically closest, to the Charlottesville community, a kind of symbolic link between the community and the university. And so we're fund raising right now for that memorial.

Q. One narrative I've heard in town is that there were people who did not want the statue removed because they wanted the resources directed more toward contemporary issues — not focusing on history. Such as living wages. Many universities have been attempting to deal with their histories, but they're less likely to get involved in social-justice issues. What do you think are universities' roles and responsibilities in their communities?

A. Well, as the Charlottesville case shows, there isn't just one point of view in a community. There are many points of view. And I'm sympathetic to the issue that the city, which is relatively small and landlocked, has a limited tax base, is now going to spend, not just the money to remove the statues, but there's going to be a lot of money for police overtime. And there are going to be court costs and so on.

I can understand why people are frustrated with that. There are certainly issues in the city. Affordable housing is an important one. And I see university experts involved in almost every aspect of city life. There is not a commission or a committee or a board of a nonprofit that typically does not have university people engaged on it. I think that it's more important for us to encourage the members of the university community to engage with Charlottesville than to tell them how to do it. And I've made a real effort not to tell them how to do it.

Just to give you one example, our students provide 3,500 volunteer hours a week in the city of Charlottesville. And they do all sorts of things from Habitat for Humanity to tutoring children having trouble with math.

Q. What is the role of the university as a central player in the free-speech debate? How does the university fit into the picture?

A. Well, our first responsibility is educational. Some current studies that have come out indicate that this generation of college students doesn't really understand or agree with free speech as it's been interpreted by the Supreme Court. And so making it clear what free speech is and is not, I think, is part of what our job is.

And that also applies to things like the Klan rally. The Klan has the right to rally. We might not agree with what they say. We can publicly disagree with what they have to say. But they do have the right to be there and to say it. By the same point of view, I think our students have the right to hear different viewpoints. And they don't have to agree with those viewpoints. But they have the right to hear about it.

I think our educational role here is really primary, and supersedes everything else. We have had our own free-speech issues here in the past. And I've tried to see to it every time that the university comes down on the side of free speech. We do have a green-light rating from FIRE, which is still pretty rare among American universities.

Q. So this decision on the statues is getting a lot of attention from outside groups. With the demonstrations and upcoming rallies, is Charlottesville becoming some version of Berkeley? And, in the midst of that, do you see yourself as a national leader? And what answers might you have for other leaders?

A. Well, I'm not sure that we're like Berkeley. I mentioned we're a city of 50,000. Our nearest major metropolitan area is Richmond, which is not nearly as large as San Francisco. So there's a lot of ways in which I think we are not similar.

In other ways, we are. We're an active research university. A lot of this community is affected by the fact that this fall we'll be bringing 23,000 students here together. That really changes the size and the focus of the city. So, yes, I think those things are important.

And whether I see myself as a leader is not really so important as whether I'm seen that way by others. And I think that, because of our heritage, because of the stance we've taken on free speech, I do think people will look at us to see how we act. And, to me, what is most important is that these 23,000 students have an opportunity to hear and engage the central civic issues.

One of the things we believe we do is that we produce students for lives of civic responsibility. And it's very easy, in the current political turmoil, just to go hide and say, I'm not going to have nothing to do with this. We like to encourage our students instead to be willing to engage — engage intellectually, at least — even if they don't become engaged otherwise.

Q. Do you have any other thoughts on this alt-right "Unite the Right" rally that's happening in August here?

A. Well, that is a very different kind of thing. It appears that it will be a coalition of, I would say, politically right-leaning groups who probably have different agendas and don't all have the same platform — more difficult to deal with than, say, the Klan, which has a long and discredited history, I might mention, and which today is not seen, I think, as a particularly vibrant organization. I think it's worth noting that the Klan members came from North Carolina. They weren't even from Virginia.

With the alt-right, it's a different kind of situation. I think that they exist in part to be provocative. I think they exist in part to have people take the bait. I think that there is, at some level, a desire for violence. And that is what I think we have to be on our guard about. One thing that's important to me is that our students, in expressing their civic engagement, remain safe. And that will be my principal concern about this upcoming rally. For my own part, I would just prefer these people not get a bigger audience.

Q. Is that becoming a harder space to navigate, balancing free speech and safety with these groups?

A. Well, what's difficult here is the position of police because they have to form a line to protect the speakers — that's a free-speech obligation. But then the protesters are facing a line of police, and they feel angry about that. They want to get at the people who are conducting the rally and speaking. And so then you get the issues about the police and how they control the crowds and so on. So, yeah, that's a difficult space to navigate. It's one of the reasons I think the counterprotests are better done in ways other than coming and confronting the original rally.

So when the Klan was here there were three or four events around the city, all very well attended, not covered by the press, which gave people an alternative venue to express their opinions.

Julia Schmalz is a senior multimedia producer. She tells stories with photos, audio, and video. Follow her on Twitter @jschmalz09, or email her at julia.schmalz@chronicle.com