(CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.) Charlottesville, Virginia, recently saw a jaw-dropping display of a culture many thought had disappeared. On Aug. 11, the campus of the University of Virginia and the surrounding town of Charlottesville were scattered with protesters, counter-protesters, and tens of thousands of petrified citizens caught in the middle of a historically terrifying riot. I was shocked to hear the news that one of the happiest towns in America had been injected with what could be considered a lethal amount of hatred and violence in such a short period of time. Only shortly after I heard the news did I remember I had scheduled a visit to the University of Virginia on Sept. 2, in the heart of Charlottesville.
After touring two schools in North Carolina, and two others in Virginia, UVA would be my last tour on my three-day college trip over the four-day Labor Day weekend St. Paul’s offered, thanks to the Lasallian Formation holiday on Friday, Sept. 1. UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, Hampden-Sydney, and Washington & Lee were all located in small towns surrounded by beautiful scenery. UVA is widely considered one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation, so I was chomping at the bit to see the campus and its surrounding area in Charlottesville.
As my mom and I arrived in town Friday night after touring Washington & Lee in nearby Lexington, I immediately noticed just how beautiful it was. Lush greenery set before beautiful, monolithic federal-style buildings, and happy students walking around campus — despite the weather. Due to the waves of storms thrown to the East Coast by Hurricane Harvey, Charlottesville was in the midst of a downpour; yet even in its cloudiest, wettest day, I still found the town to be beautiful and peaceful. During our quick drive around the town, we noticed many messages of solidarity scattered throughout the campus, on buildings, dorm windows, and even the Beta Bridge, a notable bridge crossing over the highway in Charlottesville, a frequent canvas for important messages.
It was hard to imagine that hardly three weeks prior, hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in a heated mob riddled with pitchforks and torches to praise and glorify the Ku Klux Klan. It is even harder to imagine that at that same time, a group of counter-protesters was mowed down by a maniac in a gray Dodge Challenger, killing one, and severely injuring 19 others. No matter who you are, regardless of race, gender, creed, age, this was a horrifying, disgusting act of terror.
On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 2, I woke up to a cool, misty breeze coming through the open window in my hotel room of the Cavalier Inn, located on UVA’s campus. We packed our bags, loaded them in the rental car, and headed off only three or four blocks to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. When we arrived, we were provided a 45-minute presentation regarding all aspects of the school, the community, academics, athletics, admissions, and financial aid. Our presenter touched on the fact that Charlottesville is her favorite town in the world. It is not too big, not too small. She said she always felt safe walking at night, and believed the town cared about her safety and happiness.
After our presentation was completed, I choose a tour guide, Justin. Justin was a fourth-year student in the school of Arts and Sciences, born in the USA, but raised in Singapore for 16 of his 18 years prior to attending UVA. He will graduate in May with a double major in Chinese and Political Science. Justin began the tour by bringing us to the ever-famous “Lawn,” in the heart of UVA’s campus. A multi-tiered patch of grass wider than a football field and longer than three, the lawn is flanked by dorms built in the 1800s, and headed on one end by the Rotunda, (one of UVA’s 17 academic libraries), and on the other end, an outdoor amphitheater My guide reflected on all of the memories he had on that very patch of grass. His freshman year, during the first snowfall of winter, over 3,000 students participated in a snowball “war,” as he put it. Every Christmas, Justin went to The Lawn to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree and Rotunda, while listening to caroling music. However, his favorite event was the annual trick-or-treating. He told us that it is widely considered as the most efficient community trick-or-treating events in the country, as kids just walk from dorm to dorm, asking college students for handfuls of candy.
After hearing ten minutes of happy memories, I quickly zoned out. A sickening thought crossed through my head, and I froze. I was standing in the exact spot upon which a KKK rally was held, bearing flames and pitchforks, chanting songs and chants of racism and hate for hours upon hours.
Yet, everything looked normal. There was no sign of a massive rally held less than a month ago, no sign of hate, no sign of oppression. Only happy memories were recognized. After continuing our tour for another 45 minutes or so, we passed the Beta Bridge, and the message on it, painted white, laying over a bright green background read, “HATE HAS NO PLACE HERE. WE CHOOSE LOVE.”
After the tour was over, we went into the heart of Charlottesville, the stretch of restaurants and shops, called “The Corner.” As we walked around, in the corner of every window was a sign, most saying, “We choose love,” or “No Hate,” or my favorite (and a play on the Virginia state slogan) “Virginia is for Lovers, not for Haters.”
As we got back into our rental car and headed back to Raleigh to catch our flight the following morning, I began to think about everything I had seen in Charlottesville, whose town motto is, “A great place to live for all of our citizens.” I noticed how every single person walking around was smiling, I noticed there was no sign of any conflict, and all signs pointing to relentless support. It was clear to me that Charlottesville is still one of the happiest cities in America, as not even a horrendous tragedy such as that which occurred on Aug. 11 can diminish the love, peace, and happiness that resides within the quaint town of Charlottesville, Virginia.