by J. Tobias Beard
How four young black men found their mission to change our city, starting now
The Tonsler Park Recreation Center is busy at 4:30pm on a Wednesday. The long, L-shaped main room bustles with games of pool and chess, people coming and going past the old school Ms. Pac-Man game and the foosball table. Adults watch the T.V. on the wall, or sit and talk in small groups. You get the sense many are just killing time on a cold evening in the neighborhood.
Wes Bellamy isn’t killing time, he’s chasing it. Because even though he just arrived, he has to leave again to track down a girl in his after-school program, which officially starts at 4pm but which really starts when he gets all of the kids together. After passing some instructions to one of the older kids, he heads through the crowd out to the parking lot, past his trademark Dodge Charger, getting instead into an old minivan. Bellamy moves like an athlete, which he is. But he uses his spacial awareness and vision like a politician, timing his smiles, waves, and winks to make sure everyone gets a piece of him.
Then he’s gone, driving the couple blocks from the rec center over to the Sixth Street housing project, hopping out with the van still running, and knocking on an apartment door. There’s no answer and no one outside has seen the girl, so Bellamy gets back to the van and heads back to the rec center, no sign of irritation on his face. Inside, in a small room separated from the rest of the building by a sliding plastic wall, seven young men, ranging in age from 4 to 23, are getting ready to box.Coach Tyrone and Coach Norman, Bellamy’s volunteer helpers, wrap hands with athletic tape, pull on gloves, and point out untied shoelaces. After stretching and doing jumping jacks, the kids divide into groups to work on shadowboxing. The room is small, 10′ x 20′ at most, and the kids’ efforts soon render the windows too foggy to see through. Most nights 12 or more kids show up, but even with only half that number—plus the coaches, a UVA student who’s helping out, not to mention the body bag and two speed bags—the room is crowded to the point of absurdity.
Bellamy has organized a step dance class for girls that takes place at the same time, but they’ve been forced out of the conference room they usually use to make way for a city planning meeting. The search is on for a space to practice, but until then, the girls fight for room in the crowded main hall, while the boys jab and faint in tightly circumscribed circles in the back room.
The program is called HYPE, Helping Young People Evolve, and when it began on December 7, 2011 it was just Bellamy, some boxing gloves, and a punching bag. There are now 16 boys and seven girls who meet four days a week. At 26, Bellamy is only a few years older than the oldest of the boxers, but even so, he’s more than just a coach to these kids; he’s also a driver and a disciplinarian, a teacher and a mentor, sometimes a big brother, sometimes a parent.
“I was just like these kids,” he says. “I know what it’s like to not have things. I know what it’s like to have those surrogate fathers.”
The goal of HYPE is to use boxing and step dancing to instill discipline in young people, to help them grow and learn respect for themselves and for others. It’s open to all of the city’s children, but things in this world being what they are, the kids in HYPE all come from families below the poverty line and all of them are black.
When the training session is over, equipment put away, snacks distributed, one of the younger boys in the HYPE program runs over to Bellamy, interrupting our conversation to ask a question.
“Say excuse me,” Bellamy says, before telling the boy to turn around and try again. He walks a few steps, then comes back, says excuse me, and asks his question.
“Do you know him?” Bellamy asks, pointing to me.
“No,” the boy says.
And then, following Bellamy’s instructions, he holds out his hand and introduces himself. Bellamy places a large hand on the boy’s tiny head.
“You’ve worked hard,” he says. “And I’m proud of you.”
February is Black History Month, when the media dutifully searches for stories about African-American history that depart from the usual refrain of poverty, crime, and pity with which it covers the black community and aims for something more uplifting. Let’s remember how far we’ve come. Then let’s get back to our separate corners.
After a year putting together stories for a C-VILLE series of alternative histories called “The Past is Present,” I got assigned black history. But I didn’t want to talk about Jefferson and slavery, or Vinegar Hill, or the struggles of the Civil Rights era. I wanted to talk instead about the generation born after the ’60s, the kids weaned on hip-hop and Boyz n the Hood. Instead of black history, I want to talk about black now, because that’s what matters most to me as someone who grew up here. I can’t remember Jim Crow or desegregation, but I feel acutely how skin color still serves to separate us in this town.
The assignment really began over breakfast at the Tip Top, when two white guys (Giles Morris and myself) slid somewhat awkwardly into a booth across from three black guys (Wes Bellamy, Quinton Harrell, and Corbin Hargraves), and began trying to figure out how C-VILLE Weekly could better cover news and culture in Charlottesville’s African-American community. We are all roughly the same age, and there was a shared desire to get past the mistrust that holds us back. After some pleasantries and introductions, the conversation quickly turned to their frustration with the clichéd and one dimensional articles the media seems to replicate endlessly. In response, my editor explained the trouble he has finding sources, other than the same four or five people, willing to address African-American issues.
Harrell, whose round head, large eyes, and stoic expression make him look sleepy, is anything but. Always direct, he exuded intensity as he expressed his disappointment with C-VILLE’s last attempt at a story on race, which he called a “missed opportunity” and a “setback.” A fragile bridge was built over pancakes and bacon because it had to start somewhere. Trust us, we’ll do this differently, we said. O.K., they said, we’ll see.
It’s easy to fit my subjects into archetypes: Wes Bellamy, 26, the star athlete from the hood turned leader of men; Quinton Harrell, 42, the street smart hustler who saw the light; Corbin Hargraves, 32, the middle class financier who lives to crunch numbers; and Sarad Davenport, 33, the preacher without a church, or, as Harrell put it, “the Golden Child.” But that’s exactly what they don’t want, and the ease with which journalists fall into that trap, especially when white people write about black people, is a big part of why there’s not a lot of trust among the black community when it comes to the largely white media.
Throughout our conversations there was often a tension between the subjects’ natural generosity and desire to work on this project, and their concern that someone would once again get the story wrong. I felt it too. Fear of getting this story wrong kept me up at night. But hopefully, even if I get it wrong, the four people who helped me, and the community they represent, will forgive me, because if this story is meant to be anything, it’s meant to be a beginning. We may not get it right the first time, but we promise to keep trying.
Already I can anticipate two very good questions that will likely be asked, and unfortunately I don’t have good answers to either one. First, why is this story only about black men? And second, why isn’t this story written by an African-American? The answer to both questions is I don’t know, which is a lie, because I do know, but my answers aren’t satisfying. So let me just say again that this is hopefully a beginning, and that there are many other stories to be written.
There were a lot of job offers waiting for Bellamy when he graduated from historically black South Carolina State University. The most promising was in Virginia, at NGIC, in a city he’d never heard of called Charlottesville. When Bellamy arrived, he thought maybe this job offer had been some kind of joke. The world where he grew up in Atlanta was almost all African-American. His college experience was the same. Walking around Charlottesville, all he could think was, “Where are all the black people?”
So he started stopping the few he did see on the street and asking them. He got strange looks, but also invitations. To Mel’s Diner, where he ate almost exclusively, and into the homes of people like Joy Johnson, an outspoken activist with Jamaican roots whom Bellamy still calls “Aunty.”
Bellamy also found that the black community faced the same problems here as everywhere else: a lack of resources where they’re needed most, families trapped in cycles of poverty, and a dearth of role models for children to look up to. But it also seemed to him that in Charlottesville the problems could be fixed. The wealth in the town is great, in money, ideas and good will, and the scope of the problem relatively small. A little bit of effort here, he felt, could make a big difference.
“I honestly believe in five years, [maybe] 10 years, we can solve a lot of the major issues that are in Charlottesville,” Bellamy said. “There’s a great group of people right now who are committed to making a change around here.”
This is, Bellamy feels, his destiny. It was God’s plan that he would meet Harrell at his store, and then for Davenport to come back to town and for Harrell to say, “Yo, you gotta meet Sarad,” then for him and Hargraves to link up, and for Bellamy to bring him into the crew. It is, Bellamy believes, their collective destiny.
“We can actually change it,” he said, leaning over his words and tilting his head to look me in the eye. “I say that a lot. I get excited every time I think about it. We can actually do it!”
And I want to believe him.
Quinton Harrell was born a hustler. As a kid growing up in the Cypress Manor housing projects in Suffolk, Virginia, he and a friend would go to a nearby pecan tree and spend the day picking nuts. Once they had five or six paper bags full, they’d go back to their neighborhood and sell the nuts door to door for $5 a bag. Then they’d take the money and buy candy, some of which they’d eat, the rest they’d use to gamble on games of spades.
Later, when Harrell moved with his mom to the Whitfield Towne Apartments outside of D.C., he came up with a new scheme. By the mid-’90s, Whitfield had the highest crime rate in Prince George’s County, and it wasn’t much better when Harrell arrived in 1987. But while the older kids were selling drugs, 16-year-old Quinton and a friend were scouring the Washington Post classifieds for free pets. They’d ride the train to collect a kitten, puppy, or bird, and wait a week before taking out another ad, selling the pet for as much as $100.
Harrell, like nearly every other African-American male of his generation, loved hip-hop, and he dreamed of seeing firsthand the gritty world described in the lyrics his heroes spun. New York City was hip-hop’s mecca then, and so after high school, he enrolled in Brooklyn College, crashing with a friend’s family in the West Indian section of Crown Heights. The fact that he had to share the basement with a bunch of crackheads didn’t faze him at all.
“Nothing ever shocked me,” he said. “Anything shocking, I was always like, ‘Yeah.’ … Getting robbed, getting shot at … I wanted to experience it.”
Theoretically he had classes to attend, but who had the time? He was knee deep in the newness of it all, from the Hasidic Jews in their black coats and black hats over on President Street, to the newly arrived Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Haitians, accents so thick you could barely understand them. That was it for school, he was gone before the first semester ended. Broke, living on whatever a couple bucks could buy him at the local Chinese restaurant, he dreamt of being rich enough to buy a loft in Manhattan with a view of the New York skyline.
What happened next is probably not hard to guess. The wayward 19-year-old found himself in trouble, what Quinton, without going into details, calls “deep shit.” Ultimately, he managed to avoid any serious penalties, but his New York dream was over. It was 1990. Harrell was back home with his mom and back in school, studying computer engineering at Capitol College.
Looking for something different to do on the weekends, he started driving down to Charlottesville with old friends from D.C. to, “have fun and get girls and just cut up.” Compared to D.C. or New York, C’ville was like a trip to the beach. “You didn’t have to be as on guard, as on edge as in the city,” Harrell said. “It was like sweet, mint julep livin’.”
Down here, the D.C. crew stood out. They had a certain swagger, plus the cats down in Charlottesville just couldn’t dress. The idea came for another hustle. Take $500 and drive up to New York. Hit Canal Street for a bunch of cheap clothes, some Guess Jeans and Polo shirts, some hats and shorts ’cause it’s summer, and then head straight down to Charlottesville. Set up a table on Cherry Avenue, in the parking lot across from Tonsler Park where everybody’s out playing chess or shooting hoops, and you’re in business.
Harrell’s little idea blew up. He was only coming down on the weekends, but people looked for him all week and the clothes sold as fast as he could pile them on the table. He’d found an untapped market as well as a passion for fashion he didn’t know he had. But he also found himself once again facing two diverging roads: During the week he was in school, learning programming; on the weekends he was hanging out in Charlottesville. The work he did in school excited him, but not as much as the work he was doing on the streets. And so the weekend extended through Monday, and his school work started to slide.
Times like that you have to take stock. He had three years invested in school, was on track for a good career. The work wasn’t hard, but his heart and head just weren’t in it, and his grades were getting worse as his focus shifted more and more to each weekend’s business. Why had he gone back to school? Because he’d been told that there weren’t that many black engineers out there, and that he could make a lot of money. But that reason felt shallow to him now. He was driving up to New York and then all the way down to Virginia every week, not for the money, but because he loved it.
If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, Harrell thought, you shouldn’t be doing it. So he dropped out of school for a second time.
“People thought I had lost my goddamn mind,” he said, “’Cause of all that I had gone through, and what could have happened to me.”
Harrell moved to Charlottesville permanently in 1994, manning the table on Cherry Avenue for three more years before he could save enough money to open Charlottesville Players in a storefront on West Main. With the new store, came a change in merchandise. No more Canal Street knockoffs, now he was selling high dollar brand names and hitting the big trade shows in Las Vegas. At its height, Charlottesville Players had a second store in Fashion Square Mall and was grossing around $500,000 a year.
How much farther could he push it? His brain hurt as he thought about the future. Could he expand Players into other cities? The vision always blurred, partly because of a fear that he’d gone as far as street knowledge could take him, and partly because, as he’d admit to himself in quiet moments, he really didn’t want to be a hustler anymore.
“When did you first find out about credit?” Corbin Hargraves asked me one night sitting at Tonsler Park with Harrell, Bellamy, and Davenport.
I told them that I’d only recently learned about credit, because growing up, my parents never had any credit cards. All four of them erupted in laughter, nearly falling out of their chairs.
“Now,” Hargraves said. “Ask any one of these brothers in here did they grow up in that situation?”
Corbin Hargraves came from a loving, two-parent, middle class household in Danville. His parents taught him the value of hard work and the importance of faith, but the lesson that ultimately had the most impact came from a piggy bank he got when he was 3. He was fascinated by it, loved dropping money into the slot and watching as the amount grew. The day he got his first paycheck, his father helped him open his first bank account. From then on, Hargraves says, “Saving [money] became, like, a huge goal for me.”
After graduating with a degree in business management from Virginia Tech, Hargraves was offered a job as a financial advisor for a friend who played professional basketball overseas. It was a dream job, traveling through Europe, Japan and Australia, picking up other clients as he went. Eventually, he decided to settle down, taking a job in 2006 as a licensed financial advisor for a now defunct company in Charlottesville.
That’s when his love of saving money and his professional experience collided with his current mission: “The way in which I would see other advisors treat those that look like me coming into [my former company] was scary. It was almost as if they knew they had a deer in the headlights … and can just prey on this person right here, because they lack the knowledge.”
I’ll paraphrase the story he told me about Charlottesville’s black community. The education gap between blacks and whites doesn’t end in school. Whereas whites have long used financial knowledge to transfer wealth from generation to generation, what many older African-Americans have passed down is fear and distrust for a system they felt was out to destroy them. For most of their history, blacks in this country were denied access to the tools of wealth creation and preservation. Eventually those barriers began to be removed, but a culturally reinforced ignorance about money management carried on. Financial illiteracy keeps large numbers of African-Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty, and so financial illiteracy is Hargraves’ mortal enemy.
When he asked me how I learned about managing money, I told him my mom took me to see a financial advisor when I was still in high school.
“When did you get exposed to credit,” he asked Harrell.
“When I was an adult and I read it in a book,” Harrell said.
“Wesley, when did someone tell you about credit?” he asked.
“When you told me about it,” Bellamy said.
“And how old were you when I told you?”
He was 24. But after answering the question he added that he’s had bills in his name since he was 13.
“My mom’s credit was so shot we couldn’t even get a phone,” Bellamy said. “So I remember her putting the phone in my name. And of course, I remember when I first went off to school, 18, 19… and I’m checking my credit report, I’m like, why the hell is this on here?”
For two years, Hargraves worked for someone else. Then in 2009 he and a partner started their own finance company, The Providence Group of Virginia. At the same time, he became a licensed mortgage broker, allowing him to work part time for a real estate firm, and adding affordable housing to the list of issues he’s actively concerned with.
Providence Group’s customers are mostly professionals or people heading towards retirement, and they come from all races and classes, but Hargraves has a strong desire to teach his community how to better manage its money. He conducts seminars at black churches and nonprofits, and every Tuesday morning he has a financial talk show on 92.7 KISS FM.
In 2010 he started holding a backpack drive every August, giving out backpacks filled with school supplies to kids in Charlottesville (HYPE joined last year). And he’s dabbled in event promotion as well, organizing several concerts and basketball exhibitions, always with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.
Hargraves, significantly, moves between the UVA and local African-American communities seamlessly, in part because his brother Ryan Hargraves is the Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at UVA and in part because his education and professional background put him in contact with all kinds of people.
In general, he’s pretty low key, often quite formal, and dresses with the Afro-Preppy chic that many NBA players and recording artists have adopted in recent years. But when he talks about the conjunction of economics and race, Hargraves gets louder and more intense, driving each point home with a verbal hammer. Like the other three men I interviewed for this story, he talked a lot about finding purpose in life, about how he found his.
“I like to see people that look like myself succeed in business,” he says. “I encourage it, I assist, I give, I serve as an earpiece for people to come vent to me because I’ve been through [the process] myself, starting a company myself. It’s from the heart. It’s genuine.”
Around 2006, Quinton Harrell started to feel the economy change, but he didn’t know enough to know how it was changing or what he should do about it. By then, he owned three houses, two of which he rented out. He was perfectly in line with the prevailing economic philosophy that debt was good, and spending money makes money.
The financial crash, he said, “was the beginning of me learning a powerfully painful lesson.”
The Great Recession hit minorities way harder than it did white people. Whereas once upon a time banks had avoided lower income blacks and Hispanics, often unfairly denying them loans, in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis the opposite was true, and those two groups became the main targets for predatory lenders wielding complicated loans with grossly high interest rates.
“Whenever you have an economic downturn, my people, the black community… they’re gonna feel it the most,” he said.
While the overall rate of unemployment in the country topped out at 10 percent, for African-Americans it reached as high as 16.7 percent. A large portion of Harrell’s clientele found themselves out of work or otherwise unable to spend money like they had been. Sales in the stores dropped steadily from 2007 to 2008. At the same time, both of the tenants in his rental properties found themselves unable to pay rent. Unwilling to kick them out, he found himself carrying the mortgages for all three of his houses, plus the rents on his two stores (the rent in Fashion Square, by a nasty coincidence, had also quadrupled.) The houses wouldn’t sell, the tenants couldn’t pay; business was down, and his savings were gone.
As his financial world collapsed, Harrell had an epiphany.
“I don’t know what my purpose is,” he said to himself, “but I know it’s not to continue to sell my people overpriced clothing. I’ve been blessed with more, and I’ve got more understanding now. There’s another purpose for me, something else for me to give and share with the black community.”
He walked out on the lease in Fashion Square, let the bank take his rental properties, and set out to complete his education. The first thing he did was get a real estate license, not so he could sell houses, but so he understood better how to buy one. He enrolled in an accelerated business administration course at Averett University.
“It was a very interesting time,” he says. “It was painful, but I enjoyed it. I embraced all the pain because what it was doing, it was making me into a new man.”
Harrell had previously helped a friend from New York named Ty Cooper promote shows in Charlottesville, and, inspired by Al Gore’s environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the two of them turned the Players store on West Main into an environmentally friendly dry cleaner called EcoDry.
Harrell finished his business degree in 2011 with a final paper entitled, “African-American Economics.” He left the cleaning business for his current job as procurement technician for Region Ten, and he’s starting another small business with his girlfriend. He’s a member of the steering committee for City of Promise, a grant-funded multi-organization collaboration that seeks to build a cradle to college pathway for students in the 10th and Page neighborhood, and until recently was on the citizens advisory panel of Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race.
He has a message for young people, born of experience and pain:
“Sittin’ in EcoDry, man … We had these two big windows, and you could just see when people walked by if they were educated or not. It was disturbing to me, because although I saw some black guys walk by that were educated, there weren’t a whole lot. People that are educated don’t walk draggin’ their feet.”
Leaders of the new school
Last week, Bellamy’s group HYPE joined efforts with City of Promise, which Davenport runs, to hold the first of a series of monthly breakfast sessions called Real Men 101 at the new Jefferson School City Center, which during segregation was Charlottesville’s black high school. The idea is to gather together young African-American boys ages 6 to 12 and start them talking and thinking about how to be men. Bellamy, Davenport, and Harrell will all be involved as discussion leaders, and it’s a good example of how the group I interviewed works together.
It would be easy to label them “the new generation of black leaders” and say that they’re bringing a practical brand of activism to a town that’s been focused on policy initiatives. This week, City Council will decide whether or not to fund a Commission on Human Rights with the power to enforce violations. And while all of the guys think it’s an important step, their focus is much closer to the ground. They feel like they represent a new movement, a burst of energy aimed at bringing about real change. It’s the kind of talk that can rub people who’ve been working in the community a long time the wrong way, and in fact it often does.
Bellamy bears the brunt of the criticism. At 26, he’s the youngest of the four and has lived here the shortest amount of time, just over two years, but already the list of groups he’s involved with is impressive. In addition to HYPE, which he founded, he works with 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, The African American Teaching Fellows, and Young Men With Great Minds. He’s on the Charlottesville Housing Advisory Committee, Charlottesville Citizen Advisory Panel, and the Advisory Board for PHAR (Public Housing Association of Residents). His actual job is teaching Computer Science at Albemarle High School, and in whatever spare time he has left, he’s studying for his master’s degree, all with the goal of eventually becoming a high school principal, like his mentor, Dr. Jesse Turner, who took the reins at Monticello High School last year.
If you’re an older, established community leader, you’ve probably seen people like him come and go. They show up talking big, and then after a few disappointments, they pack up and leave. Bellamy definitely talks big. He’s gregarious and super-social, a born networker. He’s filled with boundless energy and an eagerness that borders on recklessness. It’s easy to see how people could see him as arrogant, and I’m sure people do. And I’m also sure he’s O.K. with that.
Davenport doesn’t see his friend that way, because he believes the work they’re engaged in takes all types.
“The reality is that it’s hard [to effect change].” Davenport says. “People want things to happen faster, or bigger than the complexity allows … It may just be that it’s hard. To do the right thing, it just may be hard, you know what I’m saying?”
Right before we enter his office, located within the offices of Children, Youth & Family Services, Sarad Davenport tells me that he’s in the business of saving lives. He speaks softly at times, at others his voice rises like a preacher’s. His office is relatively free of decoration, the most prominent thing on the walls being a poster-sized, framed cover of Ebony magazine featuring President Obama after the 2008 election.
As the director of City of Promise, Davenport works with children and families in the 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods, a territory that includes Westhaven, the city’s oldest housing project. Charlottesville’s poverty rate of 20 percent is twice the state average, and Westhaven, whose population is primarily African-American, is where poverty, and its attendant problems, is most acute. Davenport knows this well. After his grandmother’s home in Vinegar Hill was torn down, Westhaven is where she moved, and it’s where Davenport lived until he was 5, where his grandmother continued to live until she passed away. There are serious problems in Westhaven, and he’s determined to fix them, but when I ask him for some hard data on the problems, he doesn’t like it.
“I had an awesome childhood,” he said. “I felt safe, I had community, I had family…I remember playing in the parks. The Parks and Rec people would actually come to the parks, and they would have games for the kids, and there would be a structured environment. Kids could grow. I had such a positive experience as a child in Westhaven.”
But he also tells me how hard it is getting people outside the community he’s trying to help to understand the extent to which that help is needed. He believes parts of the city are “a powder keg.” So why then, shouldn’t I pile on the statistics? The cold hard facts? Why not show people the extent of the problem?
Because it’s a fine line, he says, between demonstrating that the problems the community faces are real and emphasizing them so much that they seem irrevocable.
In other words, the message always cuts two ways.
There was a certain point as a young man when Davenport couldn’t imagine what his life was going to be like after the age of 21. His future seemed like a fog. For so many of his peers, it was a question that didn’t need answering. It was unlikely they would live that long.
After leaving Westhaven, his family moved to the county for a year, then to an apartment on Grove Street, but neither place had the sense of community that Westhaven had, and since his cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother were all still there, most of the time, so was he.
In 1990, when he was 11, he and his mom (his parents had divorced a few years before) moved to Rockland Avenue, or more specifically, the 500 block of Rockland, where it juts out from Sixth Street and dead-ends into some woods. South Rockland, renamed Rosa Terrace, drops down from Rockland at a 90-degree angle. Most of the houses there are one-story duplexes originally built by commercial landlords in 1970. As the ’90s began, half of them were abandoned and boarded up, and South Rockland had become one of the city’s busiest open-air drug markets.
I ask Davenport about growing up on Rockland, and he sighs and pauses for a long time, leaning back a bit in his chair.
“Aw, man,” he says softly, “Rockland was … oh my goodness. Rockland was crazy,” and then he pauses again, and when he finally speaks, the usual force in his voice is gone, replaced by something tender and raw. The words came as he searched for them, and he told a story I can’t bring myself to interrupt.
“I’m more sensitive about Rockland because it still … I lived there longer than anywhere. … It wasn’t safe. So you went to the bus in the morning, got off the bus and went in the house and you didn’t go back out until it was time to go to school again. That was my first experience with, like, firearms, and hearing guns going off all the time, and like peeking out of a window. And then, you know, over time you figure out a way to process it. Because, you have to survive. You have to live. You develop calluses. There was a time when I used to wake up when the gunshots rung out. But then it got to a point where I didn’t wake up. It was a … man. It was a tough time. And that’s what motivates a lot of what I do now. I know that’s traumatic for children. Because I experienced it. … And you cannot be your best when you’re going through that. And I think that in general, in whatever environment you’re in, whether it’s Westhaven, wherever, I think that there’s a certain lack of respect for humanity when people have to live in those types of environments. Anywhere in the world. And children have to live in those types of environments. It’s not fair to their growth and development.”
The years between the ages of 16 and 24 are vulnerable ones for African-American men growing up in low-income neighborhoods. At a time when most children of middle and upper class families are being told that their future is limitless, that they can go to college, and then go be whomever they want to be, children growing up like Davenport are learning that this is probably it for them.
Davenport’s future may have seemed to him like it was unclear, but his mother had other ideas. She’d only attended a two-year college herself, but she told the guidance counselors at Charlottesville High School that, despite his 1.9 GPA, her son was going to college, and that they were going to make sure it happened.
He escaped to Old Dominion University, where he took his first trip abroad, discovered his love of reading and writing, and met his wife, Cortney, with whom he now has three children. College saved his life, or at least gave him the four year laboratory of self-discovery that I, and many like me, take entirely for granted. It wasn’t easy. He was filled with self doubt, uncertain if he was college material, and only attending to make his mother happy. He was shocked, then, when his GPA was 3.7 his first semester, so shocked, he promptly dropped out.
“I was struggling with the perception of who I thought I was and what I thought I was capable of,” he said. “I always felt a certain level of inadequacy. Like there was this inherent inadequacy, and it was shocking to me, and I left.”
It was only after a summer trip to Europe that he decided to enroll in school again. Going abroad made him see, as it did for me, that the world is bigger than America, or Charlottesville, or Rockland Avenue. That experience allowed Davenport to see that it was possible for him to move beyond his origins without losing track of them.
Davenport graduated, got married, and found a job developing online classes for the CFA Institute in Charlottesville. But in his mid 20s he experienced what he calls a “dramatic shift” in his life, a need to make giving back his sole focus. He enrolled in the seminary program at Virginia Union University, graduating after three years with a master’s in practical theology, education, and counseling.
His goal was to work in Charlottesville, but he felt that he needed more experience, so he applied for a teaching position in Southeast D.C. for a national charter school network called KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program, and got it. He spent three years teaching in D.C., which at the time had the lowest performing schools in the country. He won a teacher of the year honor and made good money. He was happy and doing well.
Then he got an e-mail from a friend telling him about this great position opening up in Charlottesville, director for City of Promise. It was Tuesday, August 17, 2011. The application needed to be in by Friday. He had a resume ready, so he applied, he said, on a whim, and promptly forgot about it. He didn’t hear anything else until December, when he got a phone call inviting him to an interview. After several rounds of interviews, he got the job, which by that time he believed to be his destiny.
Bellamy asked me one evening what I thought Charlottesville’s problems were when it came to race, and I said that I thought the city needed to let go of its myths before it could contend with its realities. We need to stop believing that Thomas Jefferson and UVA define the city. The image Charlottesville presents to the world and to itself isn’t one that includes the kids that Bellamy works with, and so it’s just too easy for the rest of us to ignore them, or feel O.K. that they don’t have the same access to earning a living that the rest of us do.
When the African-American writer James Baldwin moved to Paris, he found that no longer being seen as black or gay made him able to become what he really was, a writer. Davenport felt the same thing when he traveled abroad, that whatever it is in this country that makes otherwise smart people believe that other people can label them was gone. The scales had fallen from his eyes.
When I asked the guys what needed to change, one continuing, if less dire, problem came up: the lack of social and cultural opportunities for blacks in Charlottesville. It’s hard to keep local talent in town, or attract it from outside, if there are no clubs or restaurants, or music venues where they can participate in black culture. As Hargraves pointed out, Charlottesville is only 19 percent African-American, a far cry from cities like Richmond, whose population is over 50 percent black. If you look at the numbers, it simply doesn’t make sense to rely on such a small population for revenue. When he first moved here, Hargraves found himself doing what a lot of young African-Americans do: heading out of town every weekend, to D.C., or New York, or Atlanta.
“But then one day one of my clients invited me out to one of the vineyards here,” he recalled. “I had been to a vineyard before, but as far as a client taking me out and kind of giving me the whole tour effect, it just opened up my eyes.”
Although he wouldn’t put it this way, as someone working in the worlds of finance and real estate, Hargraves spends a lot of his life in a stereotypically white world, and seems to fit in fine. It’s less true of the others, but ultimately, all four of them love living here for the same reasons that anybody else you ask does.
“I love the quaintness, that it’s not too big,” Harrell said. “You can live just outside of town, but still be close. I like the surroundings, I like how you can just take a quick ride out this way and you’ve got these vineyards, you got mountains.”
One thing that surprised me during the course of our conversations was that none of them talked about overt incidences of racism until I prodded them, and even then, they didn’t want to focus on them. They can all tell you those stories, but they’d rather talk about issues like poverty and education, which aren’t color-specific, and about their own lives, which are pretty great. And maybe that’s one difference between our generation and our parents’. It’s not so much that racism doesn’t exist, or that race doesn’t matter anymore, but that it’s no longer the single defining topic of conversation. Maybe having a black president is significant because it frees us to step outside of the color boundary and talk about culture, which is where we interact with each other.
“Some people can look out and see a desert,” Davenport said, in one of his preacher’s moments. “And people will call it a desert, and say, ‘That’s the desert. Always has been a desert, ain’t nothing ever came out the desert, it’s dry.’… [But] that’s not true. In fact it’s not a desert. In fact it’s an oasis. You need to change the lenses that you see through.”
In the Summer of 2012, City of Promise volunteers conducted a detailed survey of the people living in Westhaven, 10th and Page, and Starr Hill. Afterwards, the results were discussed at three community meetings and residents were asked what solutions they felt were needed for the area’s many problems. Among the items on their list: more classes in technology and finance, specifically debt reduction and credit; more minority teachers, and more teachers who truly believe that their children are going to college. They want their kids exposed to different careers, and to successful people from similar backgrounds. Their children need mentors, the parents said, mentors from the community with the same life experience, role models who believe in them.
And the parents must be heard, not just in February, and not just within the framework that we impose. Bellamy, Harrell, Hargraves, and Davenport may not be the answer to all our problems, but they are driven, and committed, and pure where it matters most, and what they are trying to accomplish must be accomplished, or our city will never live up to its promise.