Wednesday marks three years since Heather Heyer’s murder.
Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 serve as reminders of the Unite the Right white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, and for some outside the community, it was a defining moment for the city.
Virginia’s football program wants to be a catalyst for change in the community, helping to turn the pain of Aug. 12 into a celebration of life, love and unity. The team wants Charlottesville to be defined by much more than the white supremacists who visited three summers ago.
Athletes and coaches want people to remember Heyer — a counter protester at the Unite the Right rally — for who she was and what she was fighting for when she was killed.
With Heyer’s memory in mind and inspired by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the UVa football program created a group called the “Groundskeepers.” The group of about 20 people, including players and staff members, aims to bring the Charlottesville and UVa communities together.
In its first effort to unite the community, the group is participating in small marches from Heather Heyer Way to The Rotunda in an effort to “Take Back Our Grounds.”
“They were protests led in the name of hatred, racism, oppression, and that’s harmful,” Virginia senior linebacker Charles Snowden said of the Unite the Right rally. “That’s hurtful to a lot of people, and that’s not what the City of Charlottesville stands for, it’s definitely not what the University of Virginia stands for and the Groundskeepers here at UVa, we just want to show that.”
Snowden and others want to take back Aug. 12.
They want to honor Heyer and the community by turning the day into a celebration of love and acceptance.
“That’s not at all who we are, and that’s not what we stand for,” Snowden said in a video posted to social media. “Just trying to take back the power of those days and show that we stand for love, unity, respect, uplifting one another and just doing what’s right.”
When the team came up with the idea in March, it wanted to march as a team and invite the community out for a march on Aug. 12. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 still a significant threat in the region, gathering in large groups remains a possible health risk.
Instead, members of the team opted to perform the march in groups of five while wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Snowden and wide receivers coach Marques Hagans were among those who marched in small groups Sunday.
“Not being able to march because of the pandemic, it really — I don’t want to say it devastated us — but it was a disappointing blow because we had this big vision of the whole community coming together marching back from where Heather Heyer lost her life to the Grounds,” Hagans said. “It didn’t unfold that way because how the virus has played out, so our thought was instead of abandoning the plan, let’s just adjust it.”
That adjusted plan still includes the community.
In coming days, the Groundskeepers plan to share the path of their route, encouraging others to make the same march in small groups while distanced.
Hagans and Groundskeepers want people to document their march in some way, whether it’s by tracking the walk using a phone app or taking photographs. They ask others to post photos or videos and share why the march matters to them, using the hashtag #TakeBackOurGrounds.
Eventually, the group plans to create a flag for people who completed the march. Those who take part in the walk will sign the flag, and the team will carry the flag onto the field with them for every football game, serving as a constant reminder to the community of the importance of being unified in love rather than hate.
The group also plans to distribute wristbands to those who complete the march. They hope people see others in the community wearing them, signaling that others are fighting for the same change in the world.
Hagans hopes the march becomes a Charlottesville tradition, helping to turn Aug. 12 into a celebration of Heyer’s life and what the community can be when it’s united.
“Our whole thing is not to just create immediate change and then like a year from now it’s forgotten,” Hagans said. “Our players, man, they are amazing at coming up with ideas and things that will create a legacy. The thought was not only would we do this on the anniversary of August the 12th, but this is something that we would do every year.”
The march, which starts at Heather Heyer Way, passes by UVa’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which acknowledges enslaved African Americans who built and maintained the university.
Acknowledging the university’s slave-owning past is part of the “Take Back Our Grounds” message shared by the Groundskeepers. Hagans loves that the memorial was built and believes part of moving forward is acknowledging the past and understanding the role it played in making Virginia what it is today.
“That makes me proud,” Hagans said. “That makes me understand that there’s hope and there’s progress and we just gotta keep fighting for change and make sure it’s consistent and those people’s struggles and tough times don’t go unheard, don’t go untold and they get celebrated because they were here.”
The Groundskeepers weren’t created to erase memories of Charlottesville’s past. The group wants to bring attention to the past of the university and the city, using the area’s history as powerful reminders of necessary growth.
“They are a part of the University of Virginia,” Hagans said of the enslaved laborers. “We win a national championship those people are a part of it because they helped build it. All those things are a part of all of us and we just gotta make sure we never lose sight of that.”
Three years after white supremacists came into town, casting Charlottesville in a negative light, the UVa football Groundskeepers want to show everyone what the community and university truly stand for.
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