Dear Villa Community,
On the afternoon of May 12, 2022, I was driving on the 33. As I approached a truck in the next lane, I noticed it had a bumper sticker. Curious, I sped up and realized the image on the sticker was a Confederate flag, with these words written next to it: “If I had known this, I would have picked my own cotton.” It took a few seconds for this vitriol to sink in. When it did, I was stunned, sickened, and enraged. I could not believe that someone would make that sticker, someone would buy it, and someone—probably a member of my own community (the truck had a New York license plate)—would have the audacity to place it proudly on their vehicle. What kind of society are we that a person would feel comfortable enough to flaunt this white supremacist hatred?
Two days later, a white supremacist killed ten Black people at Tops on Jefferson Avenue and injured three more, including a member of our Villa family.
When I heard the news, my mind quickly reverted back to the bumper sticker. In just 48 hours, I witnessed both a shocking declaration of white supremacy and its tragic and horrific consequences, right here in my hometown. The next day, at a gathering of Villa faculty and staff members, I remember tearfully lamenting that I thought lynchings were a thing of the past.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Tops massacre. As a Villa community, we join our fellow Buffalonians in honoring the victims who died and were injured on that terrible day. We pray for them, their loved ones, and our community. We ask God to comfort the grieving and to bring healing to our city and country.
Sadly, the terror that took place on May 14 was not an isolated occurrence. Rather, it was the collusion of powerful forces in our society, current and historic—white supremacism, systemic racism, gun violence, mass murder, and the scourge of conspiracy theories and misinformation.
In the days and weeks that followed the massacre, I was focused, like many of you, on figuring out what I could do individually and what Villa could do collectively to help the victims, heal our community, and fight back against the culture of hate and violence that caused this tragedy. Often, I felt helpless.
Remarkably, it was the mother of one of the victims who showed us the way. Zeneta Everhart graduated from Villa Maria College in 2008. She now serves on our Board of Trustees. Her son Zaire, a former Villa student, was the first person shot on May 14. Thankfully, he survived and is doing well. Zeneta quickly became one of the leading voices among the victims. Soon, she was testifying in front of Congress and attending the President’s State of the Union address, garnering national and international attention.
Zeneta concluded that education is the key to preventing overt acts of racist terrorism as well as covert practices of systemic racism. She and Zaire started a book club with the goal of teaching children about African-American history and culture. Within months, over 10,000 books had been donated to the book club and Zeneta asked for them to have a home at Villa.
We continue to house Zeneta’s and Zaire’s books. In October of 2022, Zeneta, Say Yes Buffalo, and Villa co-sponsored a panel discussion called “Listen, Learn, Act: Education’s Role in Combating Racism and Violence.” We brought together students, staff members, and community leaders to discuss their experiences confronting issues of race and racism in education. Behind the scenes, we have continued this conversation and are planning how it can lead to tangible action.
Our efforts are desperately needed. According to one estimate, there have already been over 200 mass shootings in the United States this year, leaving almost 300 people dead and almost 800 injured. At the same time, hate crimes have been rising significantly over the last two years, reaching their highest peak since the government began tracking them 30 years ago.
To reverse these trends, we must take up Zeneta’s challenge and educate ourselves more deeply about the history of racism and violence in our country. We must seek to better understand the dynamics of gun violence, radical conspiracy theories, and systemic racism in our current society. We must listen to the lived experiences of people of color rather than to what pundits and politicians tell us to think.
And so, if you are looking for a way to commemorate the anniversary of this deadly attack in addition to prayers and moments of silence, I encourage you to join me in picking up a credible book, reading a reputable article, watching a well-researched documentary, or talking to a neighbor who will provide accurate insight on how we have experienced racism and violence in our country.
Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Zeneta Everhart all understood that education and knowledge are the keys to self-realization and communal transformation. As an educational institution, we are committed to heeding their call. Educated, informed, and empowered, together we can collectively silence the bumper stickers, chat room posts, and AR-15s of white supremacy. Together, we can change the world.
Matthew Giordano, Ph.D.
Villa Maria College