Social activist Ana Edwards, in her own words

Ana Edwards has chosen to fight the good fight against racism and oppression here in Richmond. She’s controversial, she’s tireless, she’s just what we need.

Ana Edwards wasn’t always a megaphone-holding, galvanizing force. The L.A. native came to Richmond by way of New York and spent a few years not paying too much attention to the race issues she saw all around her. Then, in the mid-1990s, she started to learn more about local history, and her life’s course changed.

We’re delighted to host Ana Edwards this Thursday, September 10th at RVANews Live #004: Out with the Old. She’s been a mover and shaker (and a changer and trailblazer) as regards to the ways that the City treats its history, recognizing that it sends a distinct message to the citizens here and now. Style Weekly just put Ana, along with her husband, Phil Wilayto, on their 2015 Political Power List. It’s happening.

Ana and her husband, Phil Wilayto, head up the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, and their Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project has played a big part in the recent Shockoe Bottom debates. She’s become one of the go-to people for media (including the Boston Globe) who want to understand more about Richmond’s struggles to reconcile itself with its Confederate past. And when the Dylann Roof shootings sparked a national debate over the region’s still-prevalent use of symbols, Ana, Phil, and their groups were suddenly being asked for quotes a lot more. Symbols are symbols for a reason. Getting rid of them sends a message to the historically oppressed that the oppressors recognize that racism exists and that we won’t stand for it. To purposefully and intentionally keep them up–well, what message does that send?

Here’s some more information about Ana, in her own words. Come by the Visual Arts Center for food, drink, and fascinating conversation–you’ll have the chance to ask Ana questions, get inspired, and hear about KonMari stuff while you’re at it.

Buy a ticket for $15, and get one drink and lots of food for free!

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How did you get involved in social activism, and why Richmond?

** Ana Edwards:** I wasn’t involved until the age of 42–that’s when I met Phil [Wilayto, Ana’s husband]. But all along I was laying groundwork for this phase of life, I just didn’t realize it. I grew up in L.A., finished my undergrad degree, and moved to New York City. I married a guy who was from Richmond and we moved to Chesterfield County, where we had a landscape design firm.

When I got here, I found myself acutely aware of the separate lives of black and white people in Virginia. It’s very different from where I grew up.

When I grew up and where I grew up–it was a much more multi-racial, multi-ethnic dynamic in both places (L.A. and New York). And that wasn’t the norm then in California, which is many things–granola, Hollywood, radical right-wing Republican, agriculturalists, super urban metrosexuals, San Francisco, which is totally different from L.A., which is totally different from San Diego, which is a military town. I grew up in a very culturally oriented area where you’d meet artists and intellectuals–not that we were artists or intellectuals, they were just around a lot–and my family had a huge belief in education. I grew up surrounded by readers.

Because it was the multicultural ’60s and because it was L.A., it was automatically Mexican, Japanese, White, and Black. That’s the basic mix. Keep stirring it up and mixing it up and it gets more and more interesting. Then I go to New York, and that’s global, multicultural, and has people from everywhere.

At that point I had never experienced a small city. When I came to Virginia, I was kind of stunned. It was sort of seductive, in a way, how small-town this place felt, how there really were only Black people and White people and that was it. It was like being inside of the movies I had grown up watching or the books I had read. I felt like I was having daily out of body experiences, because I felt like I was living inside the Civil Rights movement. I was encountering what my parents’ generation on my father’s side had left the South to get away from. When I said I was moving to Virginia, [my family] said “Wow, really? Do you know how long it took us to get OUT of there?”

I love my family, they taught us to recognize nonsense when we saw it. But they didn’t like to preclude us from having experiences. They did some head-shaking [when I said I was moving here], but at the same time they said we had an ancestor who was sold out of Richmond. So in the back of my head I was always looking for clues, but we didn’t really have any information, so i just stored it.

The first five years I was here as a landscaper, we were all over the suburban and rural areas, so I got to see a lot of old Virginia, and a lot of really small towns. I saw farmers and I saw Black farmers, which was something I hadn’t seen before. It connected me to a story that my grandfather and grandmother had told me about growing up in Texas. I was beginning to build a sense of trajectory of Black life in Virginia, and all it did was breed more and more questions.

Then after my divorce in 1995, I moved into the city. I liked living in the city better. I worked for Richmond Memorial Hospital, I worked for Baskervill–and that was a big education as far as how things get built in this town. We also had a vault of old 19th Century architectural drawings, and that was another sort of insight into the families of Richmond and how they lived.

Then I meet Phil and all these pieces start falling together–all this poverty and all these people and all these weird institutions like the DAR buliding and the VHS building, which look like mausoleums only they’re awfully clean and well maintained, and Monument Avenue.

Gabriel’s Rebellion was my beginning in really studying Virginia history. To understand Virginia history, you have to work on the whole trajectory of the discovery of the New World. How did people get here? What happened when they discovered the other hemisphere? And why are we [in America] so hungup when only 5% of the people taken from Africa were taken to the Atlantic Coast and the U.S. when 95% went to South America and the Caribbean and Central America. We think we have something special in our story, but it’s really because the U.S. is a superpower [that we have such a difficult time with it]. What does that mean and how does that play out? And finding out things like how the eugenics movement and its core architects were at UVA. People say that our Founding Fathers were really not into the idea of slavery and this and that, but they were, and they used science to back them up, and people have lived and died around this all along the way.

I attended a lecture by Audrey Smedley at VCU, produced by the then very new African American Studies department. It was on the concept of race, where I learned about Gabriel’s Rebellion. Then I met Phil, and he had been writing about Gabriel’s Rebellion for the Richmond Free Press. He had been a longtime activist since the 1960s, an activist and writer and a singer/songwriter.

We wanted to link people in Central Virginia with things that they could understand–to understand why what we do locally has an impact on things nationally.

We spent a lot of time talking, and ended up that same year working with three or four folks in injustice in jail system in Richmond. We participated in some organizing work, and our seminal event was when the World Church of the Creator, a White supremacist organization, wanted to hold a recruiting meeting at the Chesterfield Public Library. The library ultimately caved and said they couldn’t do anything to prevent it because it was a free speech thing, so the NAACP, Phil and I, and some others worked together to organize a counter-demonstration. Seven hundred people showed up.

What got me was that there were 100 state police officers in riot gear that were lined up facing us to protect the World Church of the Creator from possible attack by us, and yet they were the hate group and we were protesting the fact that a hate group was being allowed to have access [to public resources]. I found that really telling and intriguing–actual activities in social justice.

I was beginning to learn what my own political beliefs were, this was my opportunity to sort them out and figure out what I wanted to do with that. After the event at the library, this small group of us wanted to do public forums and a newsletter, and one of them came up with “Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality,” which I thought was way too clunky, but there was no turning back. It was true, anyway, and so we stuck with it. Within a year we had done several public forums on several issues, with the idea that we wanted to link people in Central Virginia with things that they could understand–to understand why what we do locally has an impact on things nationally.

By the end of 2003, we were looking at Gabriel’s Rebellion and the site where he died, which was under a parking lot at that time. We worked to put up the historic marker and reclaim the burial ground from under the lot. It was really important to make known that burial ground was there–VCU knew it was there all along–and that something should be done. That was really the beginning of the Sacred Ground Project.

It was the beginning of two things: I started reading about the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination in relation to their oppressor.

If you’re in a room, and you’ve got the powerful person and the not so powerful person, then you need to purposefully make space for that person to speak their mind and get their point across. If you don’t do it purposefully, they don’t get to speak. They are overwhelmed by oppression.

That helps me understand what kind of room I’m in, and why we have the right to assert this history on the public landscape of Richmond. And the Confederate history is the oppressive history in Richmond. And we needed to be able to show people openly that we needed to make those changes.

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More from Ana on Thursday, September 10th at 5:30 PM. Here’s the tix, hope to see you there!

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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