As the racial divide that has always existed in America turns from a deep fissure to a gaping chasm (which side will you choose?), the city of Charlottesville, Va., remains at the center of that divide’s latest incarnation, especially after a woman lost her life at the hands of rabid white supremacists last week.
After Heather Heyer’s tragic death Saturday, the bucolic college town will heretofore live in racial infamy, known by one name only, like “Ferguson” or “Charleston.”
Since May, there have been no fewer than three white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, supposedly over the removal of a statue of Virginian Gen. Robert E. Lee. The statue’s removal was spearheaded in large part by the 30-year-old vice mayor of the city, Wes Bellamy.
Although Bellamy—the youngest person to ever be elected to the Charlottesville City Council, and its only African American—has been the subject of death threats and called “nigger” more times than a few, he maintains that the events of last week were not just about an effigy of a dead Confederate.
“It’s not about a statue. No, that march was about white supremacy,” said Bellamy. “We’re still in what some would consider the Deep South, the capital of the Confederacy, and we’re moving and really vocal about equity. We’re not with the nonsense. That makes us a target. I’m fine with that. I hate the fact that we’ve had a tragedy, but I do think that it is important again for us to continue to stand up.”
Bellamy, who has a doctorate in education administration and supervision, was elected to the five-person council in 2015, with a four-year term to run through 2020. He is a true millennial, firmly ensconced in social media, carving out new paths, and just might drop a little Kanye West in conversation.
When I spoke with him via phone this week, he interrupted the call no fewer than five or six times to speak to young adults—“You ready for school, man?”; “Put a shirt on, with your chicken chest”; “What’s up, brother? How are you doing?”; and elders—“Yes, Mama B, I’m fine.”
He is indeed a man of the community and was out among the people all three days of last weekend, despite the death threats he receives on a regular basis. Bellamy concedes that his wife and mother and aunties are concerned for his safety, but he says he will not be cowed.
“Everybody’s always worried, but I don’t live in fear,” he says. “I don’t want anybody to think I think I’m Super Negro or I walk around with a bulletproof vest or anything, but the God that I serve, he told me not to walk in fear.”
Bellamy came to Charlottesville after graduating from South Carolina State more than nine years ago, and he spent many of his early years in Charlottesville as an organizer and educator.
“I didn’t know a soul, worked for the government for a year. Loved my salary, hated my job,” he recounts. “I started a boxing club for kids. Then I was about to go to law school, got convinced to become a teacher, deferred law school. Went and got my master’s and then eventually got the doctorate. The kids in my boxing club are the ones who really encouraged me to run for City Council.”
He lost his first election by four votes. He ran again (and received the most votes of any candidate) because he believes that the only way to achieve substantive change is through policy. In January, Bellamy presented and passed an equity package worth $4 million for marginalized communities that have not taken part in their fair share of the city’s resources.
Some outlets have called the funds “reparations,” but he eschews the term. He said he found the money by closely combing through the city’s $170 million budget, and writing up what he terms an effective plan.
Bellamy strongly encourages other young African Americans to become involved, especially in local and state politics, a place where Republican legislatures have gerrymandered their way into power and have been able to push through their agendas.
“I just really believe that we’ve got to start having more of us not only attend the meetings but also get on the city councils, run for state office, because at some point we have to get tired of going and asking other people who don’t look like us, who don’t really give a damn about us, who don’t understand us, to make changes for us,” he said.
“And you can’t be scared. We don’t need willing bodies who are going to be status quo,” he said.
“For me personally, I’m willing to take the licks and the backlash on Twitter or on wherever, because I know I’ve grown up and matured. But I know when I’m in this position, I’m not begging nobody to give me a piece of steak from the outside. I’m looking out from in at you and saying, ‘This is what I want, and this is what I want to eat, and this is what we’re going to have, and I want dessert, too.’”