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Lawmaker Seeks Study, Relief for Black Communities Uprooted by Virginia Universities

Following an investigation by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO and ProPublica, Del. Delores McQuinn introduces bill for a commission to investigate the displacement of Black neighborhoods by Virginia’s public colleges and universities

Delegate Delores L. McQuinn 81st-D. Photo courtesy Virginia House Dems
Delegate Delores L. McQuinn 81st-D. Photo courtesy Virginia House Dems

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill to study the widespread displacement of Black communities by public college and university expansions, a possible first step toward new compensation for property owners and their descendants.

The bill, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond), would establish a state commission to investigate historic land acquisitions by public colleges and universities in Black communities, and recommend whether displaced families or their descendants should be eligible for some form of compensation or other relief.

“Just as universities have been winners, families have lost a lot,” said McQuinn, a member of the appropriations and education committees. “I just want families to somehow be made whole.”

McQuinn said the proposal, which has been gaining co-sponsors across the state, has also received initial support from some members of the higher education community.

The commission would assess the losses of Black property owners and their descendants, many of whom fought to keep their land and sold only after court-ordered settlements. Owners were often forced to take less money than their property was worth.

The bill was drafted in response to VCIJ and ProPublica’s “Uprooted” series, which explored how Virginia colleges diminished or wiped out Black communities through the use of eminent domain and urban renewal. The series covered the long-reaching effects of displacement by Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University and the University of Virginia dating back to the 19th century.

In Newport News, Black residents of the Shoe Lane community, a growing middle-class neighborhood near an all-white country club, planned to develop more housing for Black families in the early 1960s. An all-white city council learned of the plans, and chose the neighborhood as the site for the new, Christopher Newport College campus, despite having cheaper, viable options elsewhere in the city. The city acquired 60 acres, and paid property owners 20% less than the value set by an independent assessor.

More study about the displacement of Black communities is needed to better understand the state’s racial history and its role in fostering economic disparities among Black residents, McQuinn said.

The bill, HB 1066, would establish a 19-member panel consisting of members of the House and Senate, and citizen members appointed by both bodies as well as the Secretary of Education and the Director of the State Council of Higher Education. Commission members would consult with Virginia university administrators and research similar acquisitions in other states. The committee would file annual reports with the General Assembly, and complete its work by July 2027.

McQuinn won approval for a similar measure in 2020 to study the impacts of slavery on Black Virginians. The commission to study slavery was backed by Democratic majorities in the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

The new bill must receive the endorsement of multiple committees and approval from the Democratic-controlled General Assembly before it would land on the desk of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Youngkin won election in 2021 in part due to his stance against teaching critical race theory, or CRT, in public schools, chilling efforts to bring Black history into Virginia classrooms. Youngkin issued an executive order in 2022 to strike CRT from influencing K-12 education standards.

The VCIJ and ProPublica series chronicled a long history of Virginia universities displacing Black communities. The post-World War II boom in higher education led to the rapid growth of higher education campuses that continues today, often through the development of research parks and expanded facilities.

Former residents and advocates say the disruptions contributed to lost opportunities for generational wealth through property ownership, and the psychological damage caused by dismantling established neighborhoods.

Researchers at the University of Richmond estimated that at least 8,000 families of color were uprooted by university expansions around the country under just one federal program in the early 1960s - a sliver of the entire scope of displacement.

In Newport News, just five houses remain in a neighborhood that was once home to dozens of Black families.

CNU president William G. Kelly, who arrived at the school in July, has promised to address the school’s role in displacing Black families from the Shoe Lane neighborhood. He wrote to faculty in staff in September that the university’s progress “has come at a human cost, and we must continue to learn about and understand our complicated history.”

The university administration did not immediately take a position on the bill. “We appreciate and thank Delegate McQuinn for bringing this legislation forward,” university spokesman Jim Hanchett said in a statement. “We look forward to participating in the process as the legislation is considered by the General Assembly.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat whose district includes CNU, said the revelations about the school’s acquisitions were indicative of policies aimed at Black citizens in the Jim Crow era. Scott’s father, a civil rights leader, spoke against the initial seizures of the Shoe Lane properties.

“We still live with the legacy of these practices and policies and all levels of government must take meaningful action to correct these past wrongs,” Scott said in response to the series.

McQuinn wants the proposed commission’s research to provide hope for uprooted families. “There's a possibility,” she said, “something could be done.”

Brandi Kellam, an Emmy award winning journalist, has reported and produced for CBS News. She contributed to the network’s historic coverage of the 2020 Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in police custody.