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Del. McQuinn wants research done on Black communities displaced by Virginia universities

A picture of an old map. The map is from the 1960s and showcases where Old Dominion University wanted to expand into a neighborhood in Norfolk.
Courtesy of
Old Dominion University Special Collections & University Archives
A Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority map from the 1960s shows how Old Dominion University (then called Old Dominion College) planned to expand into the Lamberts Point neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. (Old Dominion University Special Collections & University Archives)

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This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHROSign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

A Virginia state representative has called for creating a legislative commission to examine public universities’ uprooting of Black neighborhoods following reports of the racial impacts of one local college’s expansion.

Delegate Delores McQuinn said in an interview that a commission is needed to research Black communities that were displaced by Virginia universities and to examine cases of families who say they were forced to sell their homes. Separate legislation sponsored by McQuinn in 2020 established a commission studying the impact of slavery and racial discrimination in Virginia, which is expected to issue a preliminary report in January.

McQuinn also urged colleges to explore potential redress for displaced families, such as free tuition.

“Universities should take it upon themselves to revisit and address these inequities and injustice that occurred at monumental levels,” said McQuinn, a Democrat who represents part of the city of Richmond and adjoining counties. “Many universities have profited for years based on the injustice that prevented Black families from progressing financially.”

Along with McQuinn, other state legislators, a U.S. representative, and municipal and academic leaders said they were troubled by a recent series of articles by ProPublica and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. The series detailed how Virginia universities have dislodged Black families, sometimes through the use of eminent domain, to make room for dormitories, parking lots, laboratories and other facilities, thereby exacerbating the racial gap in home ownership and the loss of Black-owned land.

For example, the city of Newport News seized the core of a middle-class Black community in the early 1960s for the site of what is now Christopher Newport University. Although less expensive locations were available, the Shoe Lane neighborhood was close to an all-white country club and residents were planning to develop more housing for Black families. Newport News leaders decided to erase what they called the “Black spot,” according to former CNU President Anthony Santoro.

The city paid homeowners 20% less than the property value set by an independent appraiser. After Black families began to resettle around the university, Christopher Newport expanded its boundaries and bought most of the remaining homes. The university used eminent domain as leverage to force at least one homeowner to sell in 2005. That year, the school’s governing board approved the tactic’s use for three other properties that Christopher Newport said it ultimately acquired without resorting to eminent domain.

In a September message to faculty and staff, Christopher Newport President Bill Kelly acknowledged that the university’s progress “has come at a human cost, and we must continue to learn about and understand our complicated history.” This “important chapter … is appropriately receiving renewed attention,” he added in an apparent reference to our Sept. 5 article.

The school has erected a plaque and an exhibit chronicling the 1960s seizure of the community. In response to ProPublica and VCIJ’s reporting, Kelly, a retired rear admiral who became CNU’s president this year, will lead a neighborhood walk next week with CNU faculty and students as well as state and city leaders and law enforcement officials, according to university spokesperson Jim Hanchett.

Although one purpose of the walk is to explore the university’s history, the tour will bypass two of the streets most affected by CNU’s expansion into the former Black neighborhood.

“The route was chosen because it was the safest option” in terms of traffic and sidewalk width, Hanchett said. “We are listening and learning … so that actions pursued by the university are thoughtful and effective.”

As part of its “listening and learning” campaign, the university hosted a panel discussion Wednesday at its fine arts center, where faculty members, local historians and clergy spoke to an overflow crowd about the significance of the campus’s location and the effects of expansion on the surrounding community.

While acknowledging the event as a first step, associate professor Johnny Finn, chair of the sociology department, said that the university should go beyond symbolic actions and consider “very real and very material things that we can do,” such as paying reparations or offering scholarships to descendants of families who were pushed out of their homes.

“I hope that this is indeed a starting point and not an ending point,” Finn said.

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