CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Thousands of people gathered on the University of Virginia campus here Wednesday night in the glow of candlelight, striking a peaceful contrast to the torches wielded by white supremacists on Friday.
Marchers — many of them college students — sang hymns, gospel songs and other anthems of belonging, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Lean on Me” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
The vigil was largely organized by word of mouth, and its leaders strove to keep the plans off social media. The result was a warm gathering that provided some small measure of relief to a college town left in turmoil by the weekend’s events, in which a rally on Saturday organized by white nationalists devolved into a series of street fights and ended in the death of a local woman.
“We’re standing in solidarity,” said Karunya Iyappan, a second-year student. “This is already our home, not their home. This is our land, and nobody can take it from us.”
The students retraced the steps of Friday’s march, during which several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists chanted anti-Semitic mantras and fought with a small group of counterprotesters. But instead of torches and racist chants, the students — a university spokesman said the crowd was estimated to be in the thousands — on Wednesday carried candles and sang songs of peace. A student read Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” and the group concluded by singing “Amazing Grace” and the “The Good Old Song,” the university’s traditional alma mater, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The university’s rector, Rusty Conner, said that Friday’s march had “represented the antithesis of what this university and the Lawn symbolizes.”
The vigil capped off a quiet day of community grieving in Charlottesville, coming hours after a memorial for Heather D. Heyer, the woman who was killed on Saturday when a man drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters. At the memorial, Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, exhorted the crowd to devote themselves to the values for which her daughter had stood.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” Ms. Bro said. “Well, guess what — you just magnified her.”
Rebecca Soistmann, 20, was present as one of “probably upwards of 20” student marshals, and handed out “two giant buckets’ worth” of what she estimated were 300 to 400 candles. She said in an interview on Thursday morning that the gathering had been organized by several university offices and community leaders, and that word of it had spread quickly from student to student.
The secrecy was maintained, she said, “to keep unwanted attention away from a night we wanted to be about Charlottesville and about bringing the community together.”
She said that while she had expected the gathering to be somber, she found it surprisingly uplifting.
“I’m not trying to say that this was something that healed everything,” she said. “I know that one criticism might be that it was a Band-Aid designed to make us all feel better. But I do think that it was a good way to bring the community together in light of everything, to make it feel more like a school and less like a site of hate.”
Emily Angelotti, a second-year student, agreed. “This is a really beautiful beginning of the healing process,” she said. “But I hope that it doesn’t end here.”
On Friday, the marchers had chanted “You will not replace us.” But Brennan Gilmore, who was a chief of staff to former Representative Tom Perriello and who shot one of the videos of the car attack on Saturday, responded with a photo of the thousands of points of light at the vigil and a caption: “We replaced you.”