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The Long History of Universities Displacing Black People

The expansion of higher education in Virginia uprooted hundreds of black families.

Last week, the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at the Roanoke public-media station WHRO, ProPublica, and The Chronicle co-published an investigation that documented how a college expansion into a similarly established Black community had happened less than an hour away, in Newport News. There, in the early 1960s, officials chose another Black neighborhood for the site of what is today Christopher Newport University, even though other locations were available, wiping out a growing middle-class community. A Christopher Newport spokesman acknowledged that “residents of a valuable and well-established neighborhood were displaced” but maintained that the university has revived the city’s economy.

New reporting shows that Christopher Newport College was not alone. In the second half of the 20th century, the establishment and expansion of public universities across Virginia uprooted hundreds of Black families, hindering them from accumulating wealth in the most American way — homeownership. Old Dominion and the University of Virginia — the system’s flagship — dislodged Black communities, according to contemporary news accounts, the universities’ official histories, and former residents. They either acquired properties through legal takings, or families sold them because they faced the prospect of an eminent-domain seizure.

Virginia’s legal and political climate made it easy for local officials to raze and redevelop Black neighborhoods. Federal eminent-domain law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowed government agencies to forcibly purchase private property for almost any project defined as a public benefit. The federal government increased contributions to local redevelopment projects during the 1960s. Black people lacked the political clout to fight back, as they faced Jim Crow restrictions on voting until 1965, and few were elected or appointed to local governing boards until the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2012 that Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment reining in the government’s power to take private property.

Displaced Black families often struggled to find housing of equal value, and were pushed into lower-income neighborhoods, said Robert Nelson, an American-studies professor at the University of Richmond. As a result, along with discriminatory banking practices and zoning policies, eminent domain fostered continuing inequality in homeownership.

Today, white home buyers are more than twice as likely as Black buyers to use the proceeds from another home sale to make a down payment, according to the National Association of Realtors. Black purchasers are three times more apt to dip into retirement savings to buy their home. “These universities…are doing great things for our communities, for our country,” said Davarian L. Baldwin, a professor of American studies at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities (2021). “They are the center of the political economy today. We need to understand that.