Daily Press (Sunday)

Seeking restorativ­e justice

CNU and Newport News are right to confront the displaceme­nt of Black families


Christophe­r Newport University and the city of Newport News recently announced a joint task force to “understand, acknowledg­e and address the history and developmen­t” of the school and the city’s role in it. Specifical­ly, the group will examine how a Black neighborho­od was cannibaliz­ed to make way for CNU’s growth in the 1960s.

Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones and Christophe­r Newport University President William Kelly appear committed to ensuring this is an earnest effort to reckon with past sins, not an attempt to sweep them under the rug. Its success would be meaningful, not only for those families affected, but for the school, the city and the region.

In September, ProPublica and the Virginia Center for Investigat­ive Journalism (VCIJ) at WHRO published “Uprooted,” a series of compelling stories focused on how cities used eminent domain to seize land from Black residents to expand the footprints of public colleges across Virginia.

Old Dominion University in Norfolk and CNU in Newport News were among those institutio­ns which expanded into areas that were once thriving Black communitie­s, where residents lacked the political influence to resist city officials.

The experience of displaced Black residents who lived in the 110-acre Shoe Lane community, now part of the present-day CNU campus, is particular­ly galling. In 1961, the Newport News City Council used its eminent domain power to take land occupied by about 20 Black families,

paying them 20% less than appraised value.

Former CNU President Anthony Santoro called it an “egregious wrong.” And CNU Professor Phillip Hamilton told ProPublica and VCIJ, “I believe [the City Council] wanted to remove the Black community from here. They certainly wanted to halt the arrival of middle-class Blacks.”

As the series points out, this pattern was repeated across Virginia in the early 1960s, when Jim Crow laws were still suppressin­g Black participat­ion in political and civic affairs. Protests fell on deaf ears as city councils populated by white officials elected by predominan­tly white voters actively displaced Black residents from their homes, their neighborho­ods and, in

many cases, the cities themselves.

What’s especially egregious about these efforts is that there were few places in segregated Virginia communitie­s where Black families could purchase homes and build communitie­s. Municipal officials deliberate­ly targeted these areas for public works projects — such as university expansion and highway constructi­on — that tore neighborho­ods apart and scattered residents to the wind, without a second thought of how these decisions would affect the displaced.

Today, CNU is a respected liberal arts school serving about 5,000 students, of which about 7% are Black. It is also an economic engine for Newport News, meaning both the school and the city have reaped the rewards from the deliberate effort to displace Black families from land they coveted.

For those displaced and their descendant­s, though, the forces that propelled the school’s growth are a grave misjustice. They are right to be angry and resentful of an institutio­n which thrived as a result of their suffering.

In November, CNU hosted a panel discussion after publicatio­n of the Uprooted series to discuss the reporting, and listen to community input about how to proceed in light of these distressin­g revelation­s.

From that came Monday’s announceme­nt that the university and the city would launch a task force co-chaired by Vice Mayor Curtis Bethany and CNU Provost Quentin Kidd to consider appropriat­e steps in light of these revelation­s. The body plans to research the school’s history, speak to those displaced and consider how “restorativ­e justice” could be accomplish­ed.

Officials from both CNU and Newport News should be commended for this courageous decision. They cannot turn back time to reverse decisions that caused so much harm, but they can honestly confront that history and suggest thoughtful recommenda­tions that can advance healing and broaden understand­ing.

CNU and Newport News have the chance to turn a shameful chapter into something inspiring that will serve future generation­s of students and city residents. While such an undertakin­g is long overdue, it is still a developmen­t worth celebratin­g.

 ?? STAFF ?? An April 1967 aerial view of Christophe­r Newport College shows some of the remaining houses, including William Walker Jr.’s, on Shoe Lane, upper left, and Moore’s Lane, upper right.
STAFF An April 1967 aerial view of Christophe­r Newport College shows some of the remaining houses, including William Walker Jr.’s, on Shoe Lane, upper left, and Moore’s Lane, upper right.

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