Fellow Armin Langer visited Professor Manuela Achilles’ course on the history of Nazi Germany. He shared stories from his own activist project, the Bus of Encounters, in which he and a diverse group of friends traveled to rural and conservative parts of Germany to talk politics. He and the other activists had sought to better understand why people in this area often supported the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party, while also giving locals the opportunity to talk to Germans of very different backgrounds.
At UVa, Langer challenged the students of the Nazi Germany course to develop their own ideas for a democratic, activist intervention. Students talked about locations on campus and in Charlottesville where their action could shed light on the uncomfortable history of slavery or racism at the university, and where they could engage people in conversation.
Over the course of April 11 and 12, 2019, the class divided into four action groups.
- The first group of students staged their intervention at the only memorial currently on university grounds to honor the enslaved laborers who built UVa. The inconspicuous plaque, placed in 2007, is in a corridor underneath Jefferson’s famous Rotunda building, where passers-by walk over it every few minutes. It reads: “In honor of the several hundred women and men, both free and enslaved, whose labor between 1817 and 1826 helped to realize Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia". The students spent hours cleaning the plaque and stopping passers-by to ask: had they ever noticed the plaque or read it? Did they know what it commemorated? What did they think of its location or the language of the text?
- A second group of students stood by a busy student cafeteria and passed out a flyer describing the locations of various unmarked historic African-Americans graves on university grounds, along with flowers to place at the gravesites. Many of the participating students had themselves only learned about the graves through the project. They were shocked and dismayed at how neglected these sites remain and finished the action by visiting the graves and leaving their own flowers to pay respect to these unnamed men and women.
- Another group of students staged an intervention at “The Corner,” a busy street with restaurants and stores directly across from the university campus. Their table also faced a new monument that the student community, led by the UVa Black Student Alliance, had demanded to properly honor the enslaved laborers who for decades built and maintained the university. They talked to passersbys about the monument and its ability to offer some kind of redress or responsibility for history.
- A final group of students set up at Market Street Park, named Lee Park until 2017 in honor of the statue of Robert E Lee that was erected there in 1924. The Park was the site of the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in August 2017. Students stood in the park with posters commenting on the connection between the Robert E. Lee statue, white supremacist ideology, and the city and university’s troubled history.
For more photos, visit our flickr gallery here.
You can also read about and watch news coverage from NBC 29 about the interventions here.