In the early 1990s, I found myself working at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, a decent sized regional daily that covered a wide swath of Central Virginia.
It was having one of those rare and special moments in a newsroom where a remarkable collection of talent and ambition comes together to create something great. Several of the people on that team have gone onto illustrious careers inside and outside of journalism, including a Pulitzer finalist and a well-known Washington correspondent.
It was a team composed of talented young people anchored by accomplished veterans and strong leadership.
Another notable thing about the team in that era was that it was almost entirely white. This in a city of 40,000 where about 20 percent of the population was black.
This fact was not lost on the one African American employee, who happened to be the assistant city editor, second in command of the reporters.
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Once she was promoted to city editor, she began pushing for a special section related to race in Charlottesville. This caused some consternation in the newsroom – there hadn’t been any notable racial incidents lately, we argued, so why address this now?
She persisted and planning began.
She started by recommending that we all read the newly published collection of essays by Harvard Professor Cornell West called “Race Matters.” In it he analyzed various aspects of black life, focusing particularly on the institutions and leadership within the community, which he saw as lacking.
She invited civil rights icon Julian Bond, who was then a visiting fellow at the University of Virginia, to speak with the staff. He outlined for us the history of the civil rights movement and also spoke of the condition of African Americans in the post-Rodney King era.
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Most notably, she invited local black leaders and residents into the newsroom to talk about their lives and our coverage.
What they had to say was a profound shock.
The city’s black residents, by and large, disliked and distrusted the newspaper and its lily-white staff.
We were the people who parachuted into their neighborhoods when there was a crime, then disappeared without a trace when peace was restored. We were the privileged college kids who interviewed white experts about issues that had profound effects on the black community, a community that was largely absent from our stories.
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And the city’s black community had a long memory too.
By the early 1990s, the Daily Progress’s editorial outlook was fairly liberal, at least by Virginia standards.
But in the 1950s and ‘60s, the newspaper had been supportive of what was known as “Massive Resistance,” the effort by the white power structure to block the court-mandated desegregation of schools. So ferocious was the resistance to integration that the state simply shut down the public school systems entirely. Charlottesville had been one of the most intense fronts in the battle between segregation and integration.
Only after multiple court orders, including two by the U.S. Supreme Court, were the last vestiges of Massive Resistance extinguished in 1968.
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Although these events happened before most of us were born, the local African American community saw us as extensions of the white institutions that had oppressed and reviled them for centuries.
I wish I could say that the experience of meeting these people and reading Cornell West’s book was a revelatory moment for all of us, that suddenly we became good and enlightened people on the matter of race. I’m not sure it really did that for us.
It did, however, quiet the dissent in the newsroom and our race-related special section, which published in mid-1995, was a strong piece of work.
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And for me at least, those conversations were the start of a decades-long journey to reconcile my heritage as a white Southerner and the shameful legacy of how this country has treated minorities.
It was the first time I had sat down and spoken forthrightly about race, and heard what others had to say. It was a fascinating and painful insight into how African Americans saw the world – and saw me and my white colleagues.
When I see the protests and outrage in the streets today over the killing of George Floyd and others, I think back on the long-simmering grievances of the black community in Charlottesville. It gives me some small glimmer of understanding of where the anger comes from today.
I am grateful now to my long-ago city editor for forcing us to confront, even in a small way, the truth about race and its unequal effect on our fellow Americans.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or email@example.com.
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