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Chihamba festivalgoers say little has changed since Unite the Right

People browse through a booth
People browse a booth at the Chihamba Festival in Charlottesville. The annual festival celebrates the culture and contributions of people of African descent. (Photos: Angie Miles/VPM News)

On the last Saturday in July, hundreds of people resumed a tradition begun in July 1989 by attending the annual Chihamba Festival in Charlottesville. Save for COVID cancellations the past two years, festivalgoers have gathered each year to celebrate the culture and contributions of people of African descent. 

Small children swayed to the rhythms of steel drums, emanating from the main stage in Booker T. Washington Park on Preston Avenue. Nearby, elders sat fanning themselves in the shade of a sprawling tent. Throughout the small park, vendors displayed colorful crafts and clothing as others beckoned passersby to register to vote. Families shopped and strolled while groups of teens laughed and talked near food trucks that offered assorted fried fare and frozen refreshments.

This carefree social and cultural event is less than a mile away from Market Street Park, formerly known as Emancipation Park and before that Lee Park. But figuratively, it’s worlds away from the tumult that erupted there in the aftermath of the now infamous Unite the Right rally in 2017. We asked festivalgoers what has changed in the five years since that weekend of deadly violence.

From most respondents, the answer was similar. Nothing has changed. Cooley Feggans arrived at Chihamba wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Emmett Till, who was murdered by a racist mob in Mississippi in 1955 at 14 years old. Feggans said as a lifelong resident of the city, he’s seen many changes through the years, but he said nothing has changed in race relations since August 2017.

“People pretty much stay to whoever they deal with. That ain’t changed,” he said.

Paul Lee was wrapping up an afternoon outing with his wife, Frances, and lamented what he considers the status quo of racism, unchanged over the years. He pointed to the nearby swimming pool — with its diving board ladder towering over the park — as an example. Paul Lee said even though it’s a community pool, most Black people can’t afford to swim there. He said he believes the only thing that’s changed in five years is that white nationalists have become more emboldened. 

“You had people in the cracks. They’re out now. They’re out huge now. This started it,” he said. “The Proud Boys were here. The Ku Klux Klan was here. It was a mess here. Five years later, we had the Jan. 6 insurrection. This is where it all started.”

He calls Aug. 12, 2017, the true beginning of the “Trump era” and criticizes the former president for his much-quoted “very fine people on both sides” remark. When asked about the clarification made by President Donald Trump that his "very fine people" description referred only to regular citizens campaigning to leave the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue standing, Paul Lee said the distinction is meaningless. He said that those same people were willing to protest alongside avowed white supremacists who had just the night before marched at the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” 

“I was down there … weren’t good people on both sides. … This was all about racism. Purely racism,” Paul Lee said.

Sheila Houser attended Chihamba with a group of friends and spoke freely about what she’s witnessed in 60 years as a Charlottesville resident. 

“I was here when they razed Vinegar Hill. And, you know, I thought for so many years that things had changed and that it was getting better. And then everything happened at Lee Park, and I realized that things on the surface looked like they were getting better, but the old resentments were still there. They’re still there now,” Houser said. “Yes, it looks like things have changed. They’ve taken the statue down, but that doesn’t mean that things have changed. That’s got to come from the people.”

Checking in with a dozen or more people in Washington Park during the festival led to a dozen or more responses that “no”, things have not improved and that racism has not relented in the five years since the world witnessed white nationalism on display in Charlottesville. Rachel Ididomenico, attending the festival with a friend, said she’s noticed that communities of color are sometimes overlooked when it comes to opportunities or unfairly targeted for penalties. She also said that as a white woman, she’s not sure how pervasive racism might be for individuals on a daily basis, but she said she believes that more events like Chihamba might help.

This was also a common refrain. Westin Taylor, in fact, said he prefers not talking about race at all. The blonde, blue-eyed Charlottesvillian paused a game he was playing with a little boy with black hair and brown complexion to share this comment: “I think everybody needs to stop being so materialistic … need to be more in tune with their spirits and God, and I think things will shape up, honestly.” 

Born and raised in Charlottesville, Nathaniel Star is a songwriter and musician who said at the festival that the Black experience in the face of racism is the same throughout America. He describes his hometown as a blue dot in a sea of red but said his “beloved Charlottesville is a microcosm of America” and that the Unite the Right rally merely confirmed that. Star seems both pragmatic in his description of racism and confident in his response to it. 

“There’s always room for improvement, but I also believe that things are what you make them,” he said. ”If we want to get past something, we have to start to actively move past something.”

Frances Lee, before departing the festival with husband, Paul, offered a more optimistic perspective. Growing up in Schuyler, in Nelson County, she said that while racism has been an obvious problem throughout America, she has not experienced it to the degree others have. She recalled having to travel 45 minutes to her all-Black, segregated school in the 1960s, and she remembered being afraid initially for her brothers and uncles once schools were integrated. But those fears fell away, Frances Lee said, as Black and white people got along quite well, based on their preexisting relationships. 

“We ended up not having any issues at all because we all grew up in the community together,” she said. “Our dads, our moms, they shared gardens and so, it was a little different for me.” 

Rather than focusing on what has or hasn’t changed in Charlottesville in five years, Frances Lee concluded with her estimation of what might make the difference everywhere. She said from her rural community, she’s developed close, lifelong friendships with white people, with at least one she said was like a sister to her. She said she believes most racism is taught by older family members and survives when younger generations don’t regularly interact with others who may appear unlike them. And she said the only way to make that stop is to actively choose to see things and do things differently.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.