The Public Discourse Initiative at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary hosted City Councilman Caleb Rogers ’20 Sept. 27 for a discussion on racial reconciliation in Williamsburg via Zoom.
Founded in August 2017, PDI is a non-partisan student group that “seeks to promote rational discussion on controversial issues at the intersection of law and politics” by hosting events with influential individuals in government, such as Rogers, according to their Facebook page.
Rogers, a former undergraduate student with a B.A. in public policy, was elected May 2020 to the Williamsburg City Council. He currently sits on the boards for Olde Towne Medical Center, Virginia First Cities and Virginians for High Speed Rail, but previously served a partial term on the Planning Commission and interned in the City’s Economic Development Office.
In the discussion, Rogers listed some anecdotes that moved him toward action such as previous experience with campaigning for the House of Mercy, past and present issues of racial inequity and future goals aimed toward racial reconciliation.
“Broadly, government exists to empower the well-being of society,” Rogers said. “That’s what is at its core. However, government and its elective leaders are also a reflection of that society and society as all things is, is imperfect. Still today there are glaring errors of imperfection just as there were years ago where people in positions of power making policies that were directly geared toward disenfranchising minority communities.”
Rogers brought to light many federal as well as local areas of unjust treatment toward minority communities. Including the mid-20th century district redlining, the denial of the GI bill to provide housing for black World War II veterans, Jim Crow laws and the local redevelopment of the triangle block from a flourishing black community to a tourist destination in 1984, Rogers presented a well-researched history of Williamsburg’s racist precedents and attitudes.
“People in the community should be considering what they can do to address racial inequity whether they themselves or their community itself were complicit,” Rogers said. “That is not to say the city of Williamsburg, as a city, is inculpable. I think anyone in a position of power today should be actively working towards addressing some of these inhumanities, but Williamsburg had very targeted and purposeful judgements of its own.”
“People in the community should be considering what they can do to address racial inequity whether they themselves or their community itself were complicit. That is not to say the city of Williamsburg, as a city, is inculpable. I think anyone in a position of power today should be actively working towards addressing some of these inhumanities, but Williamsburg had very targeted and purposeful judgements of its own.”
With the past actions of Williamsburg and the United States as a whole brought to the foreground, Rogers began by taking small steps on the surface to work toward his main goal of racial equity.
Recently, the city elected to remove a confederate monument, a 20-foot-tall obelisk, that was previously located in Bicentennial Park. Along with this, Mayor Doug Pons created a separate committee on racial equity to specifically discuss where new reforms and funds should be allocated in relation to racial reconciliation. Additionally, fellow council member Barbara Ramsey proposed an African American History Trail throughout the city to educate tourists. This would theoretically include monuments for the visit of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962 and of Rosa Parks in 1995.
“If we could fund and erect something like this monument, it would be fantastic on the surface level to recognize some of our other parts of history,” Rogers said. “It would also be a realization from the city that there are different parts of our city to commemorate outside of just that which is colonial.”
For change in institutions within the city, Rogers noted plans to create opportunity through education in the form of scholarships for students living in the city as well as allocation of funds in housing to build equity.
“People have paid lip service to minority communities for a long time,” Rogers said. “Just saying ‘We apologize’ is a necessary first step, but it is like removing the confederate monument – it is a first step not a last step. It lets the community know that ultimately when there are those policy recommendations, the community of Williamsburg has realized the financial investment from the city that will go into these priorities is necessary.”
The biggest challenge Rogers and the rest of the city council face in terms of racial reconciliation is the initial hurdle of mistrust due to past actions disenfranchising minority communities in Williamsburg.
“We, being the city council, aren’t trying to pay lip service this time,” Rogers said. “We are here to try and assist the community. We are here to try and reach racial equity in our city.”
Rogers is optimistic that while this year has been filled with turmoil, it also brought to light many issues that can now be addressed in order to make the city a better place. He points out the Black Lives Matter protests held every Saturday near Merchant Square as a promising start.
“I’ve had conversations with all of my city council colleagues about the events that are going on every Saturday and the city government itself is aware of this demonstration and heading into the October GIO retreat, it will be a large topic of discussion in a positive way,” Roger said.
Members of the PDI had positive remarks for Rogers’ initiatives of the future path of Williamsburg regarding racial reconciliation. President of PDI, Hope Forbush 3L, hosted the discussion.
“I was encouraged to hear from Councilman Rogers how we as members of the Williamsburg community can support local racial reconciliation efforts,” Forbush said. “As a young professional, I am pleased that Councilman Rogers cares about engaging the law school in these efforts. I am confident that his leadership on City Council will help Williamsburg have overdue conversations about race in the community.”
Another attendee, Treasurer of PDI Melissa Ruby 3L, agreed with her colleague.
“I was encouraged to hear from Councilman Rogers of the ways in which students at the law school can support racial reconciliation efforts in Williamsburg,” Ruby said.