[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On how the past can imprison us, and how it doesn’t.
I’ve written a good deal about Charlottesville’s histories of racism and segregation, especially in this post on race and the city’s segregated swimming pools. I don’t mean to suggest that the city or its history can be defined or understood solely through the lens of such issues, certainly not any more than most Southern locales (although Charlottesville’s status as one of the school systems that resisted desegregation most vocally and aggressively makes it a telling such locale to be sure). But the truth is that if we don’t remember those histories, it’s easy to miss how present they are, even in places and ways where it’s easy to overlook them. That’s true of yesterday’s subject, the University of Virginia, which for nearly two centuries made virtually no public reference to how much of its construction and maintenance were performed by slave labor. And it’s true of the building in which I attended high school.
For more than a decade after that slow and forced desegregation, Charlottesville’s secondary students attended Lane High School, which had been in operation since 1940. But Lane proved too small to accommodate this greatly increased number of students, and in 1974 the city opened a new public high school, Charlottesville High. CHS inherited both Lane’s colors and its mascot, the Black Knight, the latter an ironically evocative icon that long predated desegregation. But the new building came with some unique features all of its own, ones that I couldn’t help but notice during my years there in the early 1990s: three distinct wings that were connected only by small hallways and that could be entirely isolated by the lowering of cage-like partitions that were housed in the ceiling; and two large ground-level courtyards that were overlooked by second-floor windowed structures that resembled guard towers. In short, it felt and still feels to me—and this is simply my own analysis, but I would argue for it—like Charlottesville High School’s physical structure was modeled in some key ways on a prison.
It’s hard to imagine a more potent metaphor for what the past, and particularly its darkest attitudes and histories, can do to the present and future than a school modeled after a prison (which may be, I’ll admit, one reason why this analysis appeals to me, although I’d be hard-pressed to analyze those elements of CHS in other ways). But while my high school experiences were as full of conflict and challenge as most people’s, I can’t say that racism or bigotry was part of the CHS that I knew: we had administrators and teachers of multiple races, I had friends from across those communities as (I believe) did most of my peers, I dated an African American classmate with no pushback or issues of any kind, and so on. Indeed, I would say that my mixed-race Charlottesville high school and its communities were probably identical to many schools and communities around the country and world—which is, perhaps, an even more potent symbol for how youth does not have to be defined or limited by the imprisoning attitudes of the past.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories from your town(s) you'd share?
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