In the second half of the 20th century, the establishment and expansion of public universities across Virginia uprooted Black families, hindering their efforts to accumulate wealth in the most American way — homeownership.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Reporting at WHRO. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

The Virginia legislature has approved creating a statewide commission to investigate the role of public colleges and universities in displacing Black communities.

The legislature’s action represents a milestone for the budding national movement to seek compensation for families dispossessed by university expansion. It follows a 2023 series by ProPublica and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO, which showed that universities nationwide have uprooted tens of thousands of families of color, contributing to Black land loss and lagging rates of Black home ownership. The series, which detailed how the creation and expansion of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, swallowed up a Black neighborhood, spurred city and university leaders there to create a similar task force in January.

The state budget passed by the legislature Saturday would establish a commission to determine whether any public institution of higher education in Virginia “has purchased, expropriated, or otherwise taken possession” of properties in Black neighborhoods to establish or expand a campus, and whether compensation would be “appropriate” for the property owners or their descendants, according to the bill. The commission will also research similar acquisitions in other states to provide context. The panel would report its findings annually to the legislature and submit final recommendations by July 2027. National higher education groups said they are unaware of any other statewide commissions studying the issue.

The Virginia commission would include 10 legislators, the state’s two top education officials and seven members of the public. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has until April 17 to sign the budget; he could also veto specific line items such as the commission’s funding, which consists of $28,760 per year for members’ expenses. Commission staff will be paid separately by the state Division of Legislative Services.

“My country has gone from uprooting Black communities violently to legally doing it,” the Rev. Robin D. Mines, a Richmond minister, testified at a legislative hearing last month in support of the provision. “It is far past due time to do something about this and bringing hope to our communities.”

By documenting the confiscation and destruction of Black neighborhoods for higher-education facilities, the ProPublica-VCIJ series added to the debate over how universities address the legacy of racial injustice — both on their campuses and in the country as a whole. Numerous universities are grappling with their racial histories, even as red states are restricting classroom discussion of critical race theory, which holds that racism is ingrained in America’s laws and power structures.

Del. Delores McQuinn, a Richmond Democrat, introduced legislation in January to create the commission. McQuinn originally proposed allocating $150,000 a year, which was reduced in the conference committee process after her bill was inserted into the budget. She said she would request more funding if needed.

McQuinn, who will be a member of the commission, said she will seek input from other legislators, historians and families affected by university expansion. She said the commission would address “how we repair some of the damage that has been done, whether it is through actual dollars, or scholarships or other kinds of ways.”

She declined to speculate on whether the governor would veto the commission. Youngkin, a Republican, issued an executive order in 2022 to end the use in K-12 schools of what he called “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, which is more commonly taught in colleges and graduate schools. In a statement Saturday after the legislative session ended, Youngkin said that the legislature “sent me more than a thousand bills plus backward budgets that need a lot of work,” and that he would review and decide on them in the next 30 days.

In the past two decades, prominent universities including Harvard, Yale, Brown and the University of Virginia have issued extensive mea culpas describing their historical involvement with the slave trade and slave owners. In Virginia, a 2021 law required UVA and four other universities that were established before the Civil War and used enslaved laborers to search for descendants and make reparations through scholarships or community-based economic development and memorial programs.

The 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd prompted more institutions to reexamine their history of racial injustice. Still, only a few universities have reckoned with the impact of their growth on communities of color. In 2022, Colorado lawmakers allocated $2 million in scholarships for families and descendants of the Auraria community in Denver. The establishment of the University of Colorado at Denver campus in the early 1970s and its subsequent growth displaced 350 families and reduced the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood to just 13 cottages and a grocery store. The scholarship program eliminates fees and tuition for students and families who lived in the community between 1955 and 1973.

In Athens, Georgia, former residents of the Linnentown neighborhood have sought redress for the taking of their community by eminent domain to develop dormitories for the University of Georgia in the early 1960s. Researchers estimated the property seizures cost Black families $5 million in current dollars, mostly due to underpayment for the land.

Commissioners in Athens-Clarke County, where that university is located, passed a resolution in 2021 urging the state to compensate the roughly 50 displaced families and their descendants. They set aside $2.5 million to build affordable housing and a community center. The University of Georgia, citing a state constitutional ban on voluntary public funding for third parties, has rejected the concept of reparations.

Virginia legislators began discussing redress for uprooted families in response to the ProPublica-VCIJ series and an accompanying documentary film, which both explored how Newport News’ all-white city council seized the core of a thriving Black community in and around Shoe Lane by eminent domain in the early 1960s to build Christopher Newport’s campus. City leaders wanted to “erase the Black spot” near a segregated country club. In the ensuing decades, the school acquired almost all of the remaining homes.

Following the first article in the series, Christopher Newport University President William Kelly acknowledged in a message to faculty and staff that the university’s progress “has come at a human cost, and we must continue to learn about and understand our complicated history.” Kelly, who became president last year, has also said that incoming freshmen will be taught at orientation about the college’s origins and evolution. In January, the city of Newport News and CNU announced a task force to review decades of property acquisitions and consider possible redress for displaced families.

Christopher Newport University has declined to comment to ProPublica or VCIJ on the joint local task force or the possible state commission.

Other Virginia state universities that absorbed Black communities have tried to make amends for their history. Old Dominion University’s expansion since the early 1960s diminished a once-thriving Black community in Norfolk called Lamberts Point. In the 1990s, the university established scholarships and a jobs program for current neighborhood residents.

A memorial on UVA’s campus acknowledges its centuries of mistreatment of Black people both during and after slavery, including employees and local residents. In 2020, UVA President Jim Ryan announced a goal to build as many as 1,500 affordable homes and apartments on property owned by the school and its affiliates. The housing would be open to residents outside the university community.

While the Virginia measure focuses on public universities because they were established by the state, private institutions have their own fraught history. The University of Richmond, for example, acknowledged in 2019 that part of the campus was built on top of a cemetery for enslaved persons. The university is planning a memorial to honor the people buried there.

McQuinn, the legislation’s sponsor, said that she has long been aware of the displacement of Black neighborhoods by universities, but that the ProPublica-VCIJ series spurred her to act. Several supporters of the proposal, including the heads of the statewide and Richmond chapters of the NAACP, attended the Feb. 9 subcommittee hearing in person or online.

Others submitted comments via the General Assembly’s portal. “I see an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past,” wrote a Richmond resident identifying himself only as Antoine. He added that the “pushback” against studying the history of racial injustice, like the university expansions themselves, is “reminiscent once again of the erasure of a culture.”

Louis Hansen contributed reporting.