New Documentary Explores How Newport News, VA Universities Uprooted Flourishing, Expanding Black Communities Via Eminent Domain


“Uprooted” Explores How University Expansion and Eminent Domain Led to Black Land Loss

by Brandi Kellam, Christopher Tyree and Louis Hansen, Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO, and Lisa Riordan Seville and Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Uprooted:Virginia Universities Have Expanded by Dislodging Black Communities

In the second half of the 20th century, the establishment and expansion of public universities across Virginia uprooted Black families, hindering their efforts to accumulate wealth in the most American way — homeownership.

In the 1960s, when Newport News, Virginia, remained a largely segregated city, longtime Black residents wanted to expand their neighborhood, offering former farmland as plots to other middle-class families looking to build homes.

The city had other plans.

In a deliberate attempt to halt that growth, white city officials selected that same land as the location for a new college — and they wielded the power of eminent domain to make it happen. If the landowners didn’t want to sell, the city could take it.

In “Uprooted,” a documentary short, James and Barbara Johnson tell the story of their beloved neighborhood, which was displaced by the creation and expansion of what is now Christopher Newport University.

What happened in Newport News is by no means unique. In Chicago, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Virginia, and other cities across the nation, Black communities have been uprooted by colleges and universities, which were encouraged by federal policies that promoted the expansion of higher education at the expense of the surrounding neighborhoods. It is a legacy the country is only beginning to confront.

Weaving the Johnsons’ story in with the wider history of Newport News and other universities, the film examines the legacy of racism and Black land loss that still reverberates today. James Johnson’s archive of photographs, newspaper clippings and documents animates the past, a reminder of the community he sees in his mind’s eye when he walks down Shoe Lane, the street where he was born and still lives as one of just five Black families who remain in the neighborhood.

“Uprooted” is directed by Brandi Kellam, who grew up in the area and has spent more than two years investigating this story. She reported the story with Louis Hansen of the Virginia Center for Investigative Reporting at WHRO. It is produced by ProPublica’s Lisa Riordan Seville, with cinematography, editing and post-production by VCIJ’s Christopher Tyree and graphics by ProPublica’s Mauricio Rodríguez Pons. It premiered on WHRO Public Media in Virginia on Dec. 8.

Watch the documentary, and read all of ProPublica and VCIJ’s series, also called “Uprooted,” which explores how Virginia universities expanded by dislodging Black communities.

Banner Image: Video still. Image Credit – Propublica


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