On August 11, 2017, a group of white supremacists—Neo-Nazis, alt-right, KKK members and others—marched by night across the leafy campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Brandishing flaming TIKI torches and chanting hateful slogans, the group of angry white men stoked fear and fury about the state of race relations in America.
Tensions escalated the following day and during a “Unite the Right” rally in the city’s Emancipation Park—home of a confederate Robert E. Lee statue whose potential removal sparked the demonstrations—violence erupted as white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed.
If that wasn’t bad enough, a car driven by an alleged racist sympathizer plowed through a downtown crowd of peaceful protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and Virginia State Police Troopers H. Jay Cullen, III. and Berke M.M. Bates lost their lives trying to reach the scene while dozens more were injured.
Against this backdrop, months later Charlottesville elected its first Black woman mayor in November 2017. Nikuyah Walker, 38, was born and raised locally. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, the mother of three has held previous positions as a substance abuse clinician, HIV prevention educator and community organizer.
Now, Mayor Walker is tasked with helping to lead her city to a place of healing and hope and explains what needs to happen before getting there.
TheGrio: Why did you want to become mayor of Charlottesville?
Nikuyah Walker: I announced my campaign in March of 2017 and ran on the slogan of “Unmasking Charlottesville.” This message is so important because I wanted to challenge this myth, the illusion that we were a world class city, that everyone could thrive and that everyone was doing well.
I wanted to challenge people and citizens in every conversation that we have to stretch their perceptions of Charlottesville where segments of the community are often ignored. We were hitting every major disparity in a 10.3 square mile city, so I wanted people to decide whether it was okay to live in a place where a significant number of the 49,000 residents are not doing well based on race and class.
TheGrio: What’s the racial demographic of Charlottesville?
Nikuyah Walker: It’s 19 percent Black/African American and about 70 percent white. We do have a growing Hispanic population
TheGrio: How have you been received as mayor, particularly in the wake of last year’s event?
Nikuyah Walker: When you have people committed to the movement, committed to making sure that there’s equity and justice and truly understand it, it shifts the conversation. We have another African American on the council, Wes Bellamy, and he’s a fighter.
TheGrio: Has the political environment changed in Charlottesville since last year?
Nikuyah Walker: For some officials, it’s business as usual. What I’m trying to help them understand is that the policies they are creating are more dangerous than the Klan or the alt right. The impact that you have every day in the lives of community members and the most vulnerable members of our population are much more devastating.
TheGrio: You were born and raised in Charlottesville. What was it like growing up here?
Nikuyah Walker: Charlottesville is a tough place to live if you are Black, Hispanic or white and low income. We have a high infant mortality rate, specifically with Black women. We have all the health disparities and all the major diseases that you can attribute to poverty and the conditions that they produce like heart disease and diabetes.
TheGrio: What about your education system?
Nikuyah Walker: We have what I would call a public/private school division based on race and class. If you’re white or middle and upper middle class, you’re in the school division where you can go to any of the top universities in the country. Then there are the kids graduating with diplomas that mean absolutely nothing. They can’t read, write and have become part of the school to prison pipeline.
TheGrio: The white supremacist march took place at UVA. What’s the relationship between the university and the city?
Nikuyah Walker: There’s a new president at the university and I can tell you that there were student groups and a few professors who were very helpful during my campaign. Then there are people who are interested, just like a lot of members of the local community with just the status quo and return to normal attitude. The university has developed partnerships and brought in speakers who are progressive like Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander. People from the community fill these rooms, become tearful, clap, but the moment they walk out those doors, they forget the lessons in this fight for equality and equity and justice.
TheGrio: What is the city doing to reconcile some of these issues?
Nikuyah Walker: I don’t think that many of the leaders of the city and individuals with the most power talk about [conditions] in America in terms of race and wealth. We’re not an area that truly understands what race and reconciliation is and what those conversations look like. Last year, our area median income was $76,000, but it’s gone up to $89,600. If you go to one of our low income communities, the median income there is $10,800. These issues about poverty can get lost in debates about things like whether [Confederate] statues should stay or go.
TheGrio: Speaking of the statues, where is the city with that issue?
Nikuyah Walker: The two we have remain up. You know, it’s judicial. Our court system is making the decision about it as we speak. The current laws on the books prevent us from removing them without General Assembly approval, so for now the statues are up.
TheGrio: Where do you go from here after the tragedy last summer?
Nikuyah Walker: We had three people lose their lives that day aand becaause of thaat I think there are more people who are trying to understand white supremacy, patriarchy, a capitalistic society. You have to put yourself in a position where you are uncomfortable and most people are unwilling to do that.
TheGrio: What do you expect will happen this weekend for the anniversary?
Nikuyah Walker: People like that thrive on attention, and so the best thing that we can do is to be prepared.
TheGrio: Are you optimistic about Charlottesville’s future?
Nikuyah Walker: Charlottesville, could be the case study for what’s happening around this country. We have generational poverty in a very wealthy area. We have the University of Virginia, you know, less than a 15-minute ride from any of our schools that have major education gaps. I want people to think about racism and the effects of poverty. Doing so is necessary for true healing to occur and for people to have that level of optimism and hope.
Donna Owens is an award-winning multi-platform journalist.