When home makes headlines

I’ve been in Atlanta for about 10 years but still find it hard to call it “my home.” Whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I immediately refer to the place where nearly all of my family lives – Charlottesville, Va.

It’s a beautiful college town in Central Virginia.

It has about 45,000 residents, according to the latest Census numbers. It’s a place where if you want to eat dinner out after 10 p.m., you might be hard-pressed to find a spot. A place where rush-hour traffic is laughable compared to Atlanta. The airport has one baggage carousel and the latest flight probably comes in around 11 p.m., maybe midnight. I’m pretty sure it only has an airport because it’s home to the University of Virginia college and medical center.

I’m not knocking it. These are just some of the things that give it character, the things I love about it. The pace is slower, the grass seems greener, even the air smells different. It’s what I call God’s country, nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

For the most part, whenever I mention it to anyone they talk about how beautiful it is. I have to admit I didn’t really grow to appreciate it until I left in the early ’90s.

A few weeks ago, a church member asked about my hometown. “Isn’t that where that young kid got beat up by law enforcement?”

Gulp.

No, I thought, it’s the place where I spent my summers with my grandparents, aunts, and cousins. It’s the place I had my first kiss. It’s the place where my two sweet nieces and three handsome nephews are being raised. It’s the place where some people still keep their front doors unlocked. My parents moved my brother and me to Charlottesville from Washington, D.C. because they wanted a better life for us, a calmer, safer life. When we moved there, I was just about to enter high school, so for me it is home.

At that moment in church, I was talking to someone who only knew Charlottesville because of one incident.

In recent months, Charlottesville, named the best college town in the country last year by Travelers Today, has entered the national news scene with a less-than pristine-image. It’s amazing how much one news event can define or redefine a place and shape a person’s impression.

Reporters from newspapers and television stations across the country have trotted to Charlottesville for two big stories.

  • April 1 washingtonpost.com headline: "Va. governor meets with black leaders in Charlottesville, urges ABC reforms"
  • March 23 nytimes.com headline: "Police Find No Evidence of Rape at University of Virginia Fraternity"

In mid-March, my personal Facebook page was flooded with images of Martese Johnson. Virginia state police are investigating his arrest March 18 outside a Charlottesville bar. Johnson is charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. His arrest drew attention after images of him with a bloody face spread quickly on social media. Johnson, a University of Virginia student, has accused Alcoholic Beverage Control officers of racism after the incident left him with 10 stitches. As a result of the incident, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the investigation and also signed an executive order requiring more training for ABC agents. The training would include lessons in cultural diversity.

The other story putting Charlottesville in the headlines was also connected to the University of Virginia. Last November, an article went viral online that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine depicting a violent sexual assault of a student identified as “Jackie.”

UVA President Teresa Sullivan requested that the Charlottesville Police Department initiate an investigation and last month police said they found no evidence to support claims in the article.

After Washington Post reports revealed flaws in the account, Rolling Stone’s editors backed away from it.

So as I headed home for spring break a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that home and what I do for a living had collided. My hometown was not only in the news but had become the news. And it felt strange.

I reached out to two Charlottesville community leaders to find out how they were feeling about it. Did they share my uneasiness?

Gov. McAuliffe met with black community leaders and students in Charlottesville earlier this month for a private roundtable conversation at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, a church I’ve visited many times with friends and family.

The pastor, Rev. Alvin Edwards, was mayor of Charlottesville in the early 90s. He’s also served in other community leadership roles. He’s also a family friend.

Normally I would have just reached out to Rev. Edwards at his church as would any other journalist. But I had to handle it a little differently. Remember, this is home, not work, for me.

I called my mother first and asked if she thought he’d talk to me. I didn’t really have to do this, but I felt I had to go through the proper channels. Mom said call Uncle Jimmy. Uncle Jimmy has been a deacon alongside Edwards for many years at Mt. Zion.

Uncle Jimmy called Rev. Edwards. Five minutes later I was on the phone with this community leader who most reporters might have trouble reaching so quickly.

I was a little lost in the moment, realizing that I wasn’t Monica Richardson, managing editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. To him, I was affectionately “Moni,” Emilie’s daughter, Jimmy and Nan’s niece. Here I was trying to put on my best professional journalistic voice and I felt like a kid back in high school.

Because of how I was feeling about home and the images of it in the news and social media I asked Edwards to give me his perspective.

“It’s not good, all of the negative stuff, but it’s an opportunity,” he said. “I’m always hopeful. Charlottesville has always been the kind of community that can work through things.”

“I want to show the nation that, yes, we have had some unfortunate incidents but yes we can correct them. [Charlottesville] is a good place to live, but all good places have human beings who have issues. Issues present challenges that can be fixed and corrected … For me it’s always been a good place, it’s been a good place to raise my children, but just because it’s a nice place doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any challenges. I want the nation to know that Charlottesville can correct its issues. I don’t want anyone to think we just sit and do nothing. We work on the things we have to deal with. We come together as a people.”

I also reached out to Charlottesville City Sheriff James Brown III. Like “pastor” it was a bit awkward being in a professional capacity with James. I can break journalism rules here and call him James because we were both in the Charlottesville High School Class of 1988.

“With everyone basically having a camera and the ability to circulate what they see through social media in a matter of minutes, any town can be put in the spotlight rather quickly,” he wrote in an email. “Some events captured are positive and some are negative. It is normal to enjoy the positive news coverage and various rankings as a No. 1 or Top 10 city in various categories, and it is also normal to have concerns when there is negative news coverage. I grew up here, so I have positive and negative memories, but I find the negative attention to be a challenge. In one sense it is disheartening, but I feel that as a community we tend to come together and look for ways to improve things and make them better. “

So if you are thinking about moving to Charlottesville, yes it’s OK.

If your kids are thinking about going to college there, yes they should go.

I think Rev. Edwards and James said it best. But I’ll say it again — Charlottesville to me is home.