Freedom, not Equality

By Vishwesh Mehta

The city of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and one of the largest hubs of slave ownership and trade in the pre-Civil era war, has a history of racial oppression and injustice. Even though the end of slavery was a positive step for African Americans, the conclusion of the Civil War seemed to open up a Pandora’s box of oppression. The government granted freedom to slaves, but equal status was a concept which was a long way off. Even though free men and women were no longer physically shackled by slave owners, they were trying to free themselves of the shackles of oppressive policies formulated by the dominant white population comprised of their previous oppressors.

In the mid twentieth century, people of color started creating a better life in the Richmond area adjusting to segregationist policies. There were parts of Richmond where people of color were concentrated because of social oppression, strict real estate rules, and a conscious effort to prevent them from entering white neighborhoods. Then came urban renewal projects for the city of Richmond, still suffering from the aftermath of a very expensive Civil War. Urban renewal projects uprooted a suspicious amount of African American neighborhoods. Even if the white population was affected, they were treated much better when it came to relocating and providing compensation. The construction of the I-95 interstate through Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, a predominantly African American neighborhood in the city, would lead to the destruction of over 1000 homes and improper compensation for relocation. The expressway destroyed pedestrian pathways and acted as a barrier right in the middle of Jackson Ward.

Even though there were laws in place to protect the rights of former slaves, they were far from comprehensive. There were several loopholes which were exploited by the local government in order to prevent African Americans from gaining equal status to the white man. A perfect example, according to Benjamin Campbell, of such exploitation is the voting laws of the state. Immediately after the Civil War, before these loopholes were exploited, there was a brief period where there a majority of African Americans were elected to political offices because of the boom in the population of African Americans. This triggered a systematic effort by white lawmakers in Virginia to reduce the impact of African American voters. A pre-voting test was created. A poll tax was levied on the residents of Richmond with the motive of discouraging the poor members (mostly people of color) of society from exercising their political rights. These moves, among many others like gerrymandering,  specifically aimed at curbing the rights of African Americans. Even though slavery was abolished, oppression was not.

Even though we have come a long way from previous acts of racism, we still have a long way to go when it comes to providing an equal platform for racial minorities. The prison system, higher dropout rate of minorities from high schools and colleges, and the celebration of the Confederacy through flags, statues, and monuments are all indicative of the fact that it is still not a level playing field. The symbolism of Confederate monuments is disturbing and a period of the country’s history that should not be celebrated. There have been several protests in order to remove the statues of Confederates from Monument Avenue in Richmond. The first step towards the goal of true equality is to acknowledge the shameful past and start a conversation about the issues of race from the past and present.

Vishwesh Mehta is from Mumbai, India. He is a rising senior at the University of Richmond who is majoring in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. Vishwesh is involved in various clubs on campus. He is the community outreach director of the South Asian Student Association. Vishwesh was a part of the Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387) on the Race and Racism Project. He is currently a Social Media and PR intern for the project.