The DNC’s response to Charlottesville’s trashed new convention center, the crane-ridden slum that was to house its growing downtown constituency, was stark and immediately earned political credit for raising the floor of the national party to say it supported reparations — an event that demonstrated both a concerted grassroots movement around this issue and a maturing national profile for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose backstory on the issue established him as a 21st century trailblazer.
Meanwhile, local Democrats in Charlottesville have been planning on approaching this issue before election time, working with national civil rights leaders, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Last spring, Lewis’ constituent office held a town hall in the neighborhood of Crestwood on the city outskirts, urging residents to go to the polls to register to vote and for other meaningful elections in November.
“As a community, we are still holding out on reparations, but it is on the table. It is coming. Just don’t have to wait until after November,” Lewis said recently. “It’s come out as a national conversation because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing anti-police killings, but it’s also coming out of our community. We are dying at an astronomical rate; we are killed at a horrifying rate at a disturbing rate — we have the highest rate of police killings. We lost so many people there, and in a neighborhood that is one of the few black-majority neighborhoods.”
“I want to get this on the table. I want all of us to talk about it, as a community,” he added. “I want the people of Charlottesville to know that Rep. John Lewis supports a program to pay back reparations to black, brown and poor, brown families in the City of Charlottesville, to balance the social, economic and cultural divisions that exist there right now.”
Lewis has been particularly interested in keeping the issue alive since May 2016, when he returned from a nine-day march to Selma, Ala., to visit a young African-American woman named Iesha Rogers, who died that year at age 20 of a mix of drugs and alcohol.
Rogers was black, and her death left a hole in Lewis’ life.
She was the daughter of Lorene Rogers, a civil rights leader and the daughter of Joe and Alma Rogers, who with Lewis had run a local sandwich shop for over 30 years that was frequently black-owned, a small community business in what was historically a white town. Joseph Rogers, a man of white decent, worked at the store. Lorene Rogers was a Birmingham church choir director. Alma Rogers had worked as a teacher in Montgomery and at Huntsville High School and Carnegie Mellon University. The Rogers had been involved in Alabama’s statehouse, and Lewis had been coming to them regularly for advice and advice when he was a young man in 1960 — coming to them to ask, “What can I do?” he would later recall.
On April 6, 2016, Iesha Rogers called from a friend’s cell phone and asked: “John, John Lewis, is that you?” Lorene Rogers had died in April of that year.
“I couldn’t believe it,” John Lewis told The Washington Post at the time.
When Lewis later called back Iesha Rogers’ friend to tell her he was from the House of Representatives and that he was working on a bipartisan bill he wanted her to sign onto and that the bill would help redressing Iesha Rogers’ family’s pain, he told her the bill he wanted her to sign would help black families like the Rogers in a way the existing country of redress or laws or programs have not been able to do.
Iesha Rogers, whose family is of black and Native American descent, said she felt like she was home as Lewis told her her family’s story and what would be done.
“I can’t even describe it,” Rogers told The Post in 2016. “I’m beyond words. I’m utterly in love with the man. I’m definitely ready to go against my family’s wishes. He’s very much my best friend.”
Rogers is taking Lewis up on the offer. Her family has been invited to go on the ground to participate in a Congressional investigation of segregation in Charlottesville in 1920. The family has been displaced by construction near where Iesha Rogers grew up.
The new town hall Lewis has organized with Charlottesville’