Christy Coleman’s more than 30-year career in history has taught the CEO of the American Civil War Museum a fundamental truth about how the past gets interpreted:
“White people want to feel good about their history, and that means everyone else has to forget about theirs,” she said. “Well, I’m not in that business.”
Coleman, one of three panelists Wednesday morning at the Valuing Black Lives Summit, stressed to a crowd of about 100 people gathered at Virginia Union University the importance of telling the full history of America, especially in places that don’t want to hear it. The three-day event was organized by the Community Healing Network, a group that says it is dedicated to confronting the myth of black inferiority across the African diaspora.
This year’s conference, which continues Thursday at VUU, commemorates the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English North America 400 years ago, and seeks to provide local African Americans with tools to promote wellness by addressing the racism propagated against them, organizer Mosi Kitwana said.
Coleman, African Lisbon Tour founder Midodji Gaglo and President of the Ghana Association of Richmond C. Nana Derby shared how attempts to suppress the narratives of those of African descent have manifested in their work and how they address it.
Coleman said that as one of the greatest culprits in promoting the narrative of the Lost Cause, Richmond is responsible for three harmful lies: that the American Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery; that slavery was good for black people; and that black people of the era were actively involved in preserving the Confederacy and the institution of slavery.
In order to tell the history correctly, Coleman said the museum has made a concentrated effort to portray multiple perspectives, from those of enslaved Africans, Union soldiers, and Confederate soldiers, but also from indigenous people and Mexicans. While museums are improving, black people need to continue to ensure their stories are told truthfully, Coleman said.
Gaglo, who operates a walking tour out of Lisbon, Portugal, said he has also worked to expose the truth in a country where the 15th century is taught as an age of discovery without mentioning its involvement in founding the global slave trade and engaging in human trafficking.
Derby discussed the myth of Africa as a monolith through both positive and negative stereotypes. She quoted from academic writings demonstrating how authors were instructed to write about Africa as a doomed continent, plagued by hunger and violence and waiting for Western benevolence. But Derby also analyzed how a positive interpretation of Africa, like the fictional country of Wakanda in “Black Panther” as a place of leadership, independence and technology, still traffics in the notion that the identities of all people of African descent are the same, and restricts the history of their struggle.
“We cannot be identified in single stories,” Derby said. “We cannot be identified as one country or as a homogeneous group.”
Instead, Derby said cultural differences among African countries and ethnic groups — from languages to diets to customs — should be celebrated. However, she said there is a common foundation on which African cultures build their ways of life, referred to as pan-Africanism. The formation of the pan-African identity has been created through interconnected painful experiences, such as imperialism or apartheid, but existed before colonialism through shared symbols, systems and a belief in the power of the spirits of one’s ancestors.
Participants also engaged in a Ghanian ritual with shells from the country, standing up and reciting an oath of affirmation, led by Tawede Cheryl Grills. The ritual closed a loop started in Ghana on a trip with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where the legislators used the same shells to commit to supporting black life with Grills.
“We have nothing better, more revolutionary, more rewarding to do with our lives than to struggle to bring into being a new world, a world in which we, our children and our people can live, love and create freely, and stand and walk in the warm sun,” Gills, and the participants, said together as part of the oath. “We are an African people.”
Kitwana said Wednesday’s panel, which came on the heels of participants touring Richmond’s Slave Trail on Tuesday, was meant to promote reflection and taking a collective approach to healing after the participants’ experience of physically engaging with their history. While the anniversary makes 2019 a year to focus on the history of enslaved people and their legacy, it’s an ongoing challenge to dispel the conflicts that suppressing black narratives have created across the African diaspora and within each person, he said.
“The work that we do is ... to arm African Americans with tools that we can use to promote healing, to promote deep discussion, to promote addressing even conflicts that we have within ourselves that need to be resolved for us to move forward as well, whole human beings,” Kitwana said. “It’s not just a point of the commemoration, but also how do we move towards wellness, and reaching our full potential — being the best that we can possibly be.”
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Concluding a yearlong search for a new leader, GRTC announced Wednesday that it is hiring a former Hampton Roads Transit official who has been working in Tennessee for the past three years.
GRTC Transit System said its board of directors had unanimously selected Julie Timm, chief development officer for Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and WeGo Public Transit, to succeed former CEO David Green. She will start Sept. 23.
Green stepped down last August, shortly after the launch of the $65 million Pulse bus rapid transit line, a transformational project that he oversaw.
“Julie brings broad transit experience and a progressive approach to addressing mobility needs,” GRTC Chairman Gary Armstrong said in a news release. “She is a great fit for the expanded leadership we see GRTC providing in the region’s growth in public transportation and integrated mobility options.”
The decision to hire Timm as CEO was made after two rounds of candidate interviews, according to the news release. During the nationwide search that followed Green’s resignation, GRTC has had two interim CEOs. Armstrong had said in January that GRTC aimed to have a new CEO by March.
Timm worked in Nashville as transit boosters there were advocating for a $5.4 billion regional transit plan that included designs for a new light rail system and new rapid bus routes. Voters rejected the idea by a 2-1 margin in May 2018, according to the Tennessean newspaper.
While GRTC officials and public transit advocates have lauded the new 7.6-mile Pulse bus line and the reorientation of the bus network as a success, the transit company has been vexed by monthly revenue shortfalls and criticism that the new routes have made it more difficult for people in low-income areas to catch the bus.
Despite those challenges, GRTC officials say there’s now far more interest in public transit. They are seeing plans for route expansions in Henrico and Chesterfield counties come together, and systemwide ridership is up 15% over the past year.
GRTC board member Ben Campbell said Timm will be committed to ensuring that everyone throughout the Richmond region will have access to public transit.
“We believe she is the right person for this dynamic city in this dynamic time,” he said.
Timm is a Hampton Roads native who graduated from Old Dominion University and holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University. She is GRTC’s sixth CEO and the first woman to hold the position.
“I am so excited to be coming home to Virginia and honored for the opportunity to serve the Greater Richmond community,” she said.
A Red Onion State Prison inmate with a “history of violence and making violent threats” who is serving 30 years for a vicious knife attack has been linked to a letter containing a suspicious powder that forced authorities to seal off a section of the Chesterfield County courthouse last week.
The inmate, identified by law enforcement sources as Yarnell “Yah-Yah” Dakota Chiles, 33, of Richmond, is suspected of mailing a letter with the powder from the Red Onion prison in Wise County, a “super- max’” facility that holds who state officials describe as the “worst of the worst” inmates.
A Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman declined to identify the inmate by name until he is charged in the powder scare. But the official said the inmate involved is one of 40 people housed in long-term segregation at Red Onion and “has a history of violence and making violent threats.”
Chiles was convicted in November 2014 of aggravated malicious wounding in an attack on a man he didn’t know at a party in Chesterfield, stabbing the victim numerous times in the head and face with a knife after Chiles and several friends had pummeled him. The victim lost one of his eyes in the assault, according to court records.
A jury found Chiles guilty after a trial and recommended he serve 30 years in prison, which Circuit Judge Frederick G. Rockwell III imposed the following year.
The letter containing the powder caused a scare on the morning of Aug. 14 after it was discovered in the mail in the Chesterfield Circuit Court clerk’s office on the first floor. Soon after that the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office, which provides security at the courthouse, was notified of the substance at 8:45 a.m., and the immediate area in the clerk’s office was secured by deputies and county police.
A Chesterfield Fire & EMS hazardous materials team was summoned, and at 10:19 a.m. it notified Virginia State Police. State units responded to contain and retrieve the substance for analysis and identification.
Preliminary testing showed no toxins or harmful components, but authorities are awaiting state lab results to identify the substance.
“Our investigation remains ongoing and charges are pending,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said in an email.
Authorities have not divulged the contents of the letter that included the powder, or said whether it was addressed to a judge, prosecutor or other court official.
Gregory Carter, the Corrections Department spokesman, said outgoing inmate mail is not generally searched unless there is a reason for suspicion.
The attack that resulted in Chiles’ conviction was described at trial as being especially brutal and unprovoked. In a recorded telephone conversation with a friend, Chiles said he “tried killing” the victim and hit him 15 times before repeatedly stabbing him as he lay crumpled on the ground, according to court documents.
Chiles said he felt “disrespected” by the victim after Chiles walked up to him at the party and asked for some dap, which is a slang term for a greeting such as handshaking, chest-bumping or fist-bumping.
The victim declined Chiles’ greeting because he didn’t know who he was, and as the victim was later leaving the party, Chiles jumped him. That led to Chiles and several of his friends beating, hitting and stomping the victim after he fell to the ground, and during the melee Chiles stabbed the victim in the shoulder, head and eye, according to a trial transcript.
Bleeding badly, the victim didn’t realize he had been stabbed until he was taken to a hospital and examined. One of his eyes was permanently damaged and had to be surgically removed, the transcript says.
One of Chiles’ friends contacted police and eventually testified against him after learning that Chiles was attempting to blame him for the attack, according to the transcript. The friend, who told police he witnessed the stabbing, said he tried to pull Chiles off the victim and Chiles was the only person in the altercation with a knife.
Chiles testified at trial that it was his friend who stabbed the victim.
The Virginia Department of Social Services will be penalized more than $3.8 million by the federal government because of its high rate of payment errors in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the past two fiscal years.
Virginia DSS had a 9.6% payment error rate in 2018, compared with the national average rate of 6.5%, according to DSS Commissioner Duke Storen in a report to the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee for Health and Human Resources Oversight on Tuesday. Payment errors are counted in the rate only when the mistake is worth more than $37.
The rate triggered the penalty because it was more than 5% higher than the national average. Virginia’s rate landed it in 44th place in the nation, Storen said.
In Virginia, about 698,000 people receive SNAP benefits, previously called food stamps. That’s down from nearly 760,000 people in June 2017.
“The member base continues to shrink as unemployment and poverty goes down,” Storen said.
DSS’ preliminary analysis of the high error rate identifies several causes, including high turnover and unfilled positions, local government budget cuts, a need for training and technical assistance, and high caseloads for local DSS workers.
Many localities have high vacancy rates, including Richmond at 33% and Norfolk at 35%. Departments also struggle with high turnover, with a statewide average of 17%, Storen said.
“We have a lot of churn among our eligibility workers who are working SNAP cases,” Storen said. “The more churn you have in your workforce, the more errors you’re going to have.”
Storen said the errors, which generally are honest mistakes rather than fraud, could happen if a caseworker failed to ask the proper questions to fully assess the recipient’s eligibility or if a recipient failed to inform DSS of a life event such as having a child or securing a better job that could change their eligibility.
Virginia will have the opportunity to enter into a settlement agreement with the federal government that will allow DSS to keep half of the payment error penalty and put it into improving the SNAP program.
DSS will have to submit a plan for how it will use the $1.9 million penalty reinvestment, but since it is a one-time payment, it will most likely not be put toward recurring expenses, like salaries for more workers, Storen said.
“The turnover rate and the training — which is the other side of that coin — those are the two biggest drivers,” Storen said. “If we are able to stabilize our workforce and make sure that they’re trained, then we would be below the national average.”
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, the subcommittee chairman, told Storen he would like to see the department determine how much funding it needs to make the changes required to reduce the payment error rate.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, expressed frustration that the federal penalty could have been avoided.
“We could have measured that ourselves and had systems in place to correct before we were in jeopardy of penalty,” Dunnavant said.
She also recommended the department look into a regional approach to social services, as opposed to separating offices by local jurisdictions, in case that could be a more efficient and effective approach.
Storen said that DSS is looking into strategies in other states that have lower error rates and is working on a plan to improve Virginia’s rate.
“I feel confident,” Storen said. “When I come before you next year and have this conversation, it will be much better.”