How University Expansion and Eminent Domain Led to Black Land Loss

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.