Heather Heyer tried to engage in conversations about race and fairness with her mother, Susan Bro. She explained that white privilege means there are certain advantages given to their family simply because of their skin color.
At first, Bro said, she resented the idea.
She remembered when she was too poor to take the bus and walked three miles to work while pregnant with Heyer. Her two children saw the dentist maybe twice growing up in rural Virginia, and Bro thinks Heyer had been called “poor white trailer trash.”
For most of her career, Bro worked as an elementary schoolteacher in public schools, earning less than $30,000 a year. The family relied on each paycheck.
“We didn’t have a lot of special privileges, as I understood it, for my family,” Bro said.
Over time, though, Bro said her views changed. At one point Heyer dated a black man, and Bro noticed the looks from strangers and the poor service in restaurants.
Still, Bro wasn’t publicly outspoken. Whenever she heard friends were participating in a Civil War reenactment, she simply thought: “You know, the South lost; get over it.”
But that all changed on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va. Bro’s daughter joined the group confronting hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists attending a rally sparked by the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The counterprotesters were chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” shortly before authorities say James Alex Fields Jr. sped his Dodge Challenger into the crowd where Heyer stood.
Heyer was taken to the hospital, and her longtime friend, Justin Marks, called Bro sobbing. Bro rushed to Charlottesville with her friend, Cathy Brinkley.
When she arrived, Charlottesville Police Detective Declan Hickey told Bro that her 32-year-old daughter was dead. Bro put her head down and wailed.
With Heyer’s death in the news, Bro’s phone rang nonstop, and she received mail addressed to “Heather Heyer’s mom.” President Trump weighed in, coming under criticism when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” that day.
Bro barely slept in the days that followed, but she realized that people were looking to her as they tried to make sense of things.
At the funeral home, she said, she held her daughter’s hand and told her: “I’m going to make this count for something.”
More than one thousand people came to Heyer’s memorial service, and Bro stood to address them.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” Bro said. “Well, guess what? You just magnified her.” The applause in the Charlottesville theater lasted nearly a minute and a half. Donations flowed into a GoFundMe account created in Heyer’s name, with the money climbing to $220,000, she said.
“I didn’t even really have time to wrap my head around it,” Bro said. “I just felt like if people that much wanted to participate in Heather’s message, then we needed to establish some sort of procedure for handling that.”
After spending some of the funds on the funeral and other costs, the rest went toward starting the Heather Heyer Foundation, a nonprofit that will provide scholarships for students interested in pursuing social justice. Bro now works full time running the foundation, which also is focused on getting her message to youth, with co-founder Alfred A. Wilson, who was Heyer’s friend and co-worker.
Miller Law Group, where Heyer worked, gave Bro an office where she keeps the state flag that was flown over the Virginia capital for her daughter and a banner honoring Heyer from a Women’s March in Amsterdam.
Bro began traveling to spread her daughter’s message.
“It became apparent to me that the world wanted some part of Heather’s message,” Bro said. “Life was a mix of horror and grief and realizing that Heather’s death meant something to a lot of people.”
About two weeks after her daughter’s death, Bro made an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she told millions of viewers that Heyer died protesting racism, and she wanted others to be inspired by her courage.
Since then, she has participated in the Rose Bowl Parade and accepted a Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award in Kentucky on Heyer’s behalf. She has spoken to high school students in Greensburg, Ind., and Girl Scouts in Virginia.
“I do not view myself as a bigwig,” Bro said. “I’m just a mom who’s got something to say right now, and I’m just spreading . . . the same kind of lessons I taught in school with kids: Play fair. Be respectful.”
Many Charlottesville residents are still reeling from the feeling of being abandoned by officials that day. In addition to Heyer, 35 other people were hurt.
Activists continued to pile into City Council meetings to express anger and frustration. Although people invoke Heyer’s name as an example of the city’s failure to protect them, Bro isn’t among them.
She doesn’t see her role as political. To her, it is a “heart movement.”
Brinkley said she’s awed by her friend’s perspective.
“Given the political situation, and given the way things are in this country right now, there would be an awful lot of parents who would be pointing fingers and finding fault and blaming and blaming and blaming,” she said, “and Susan hasn’t done that.”
When Charlottesville recently named a street Heather Heyer Way, Bro spoke to the group that gathered. Afterward, Hickey, the detective who had delivered news of Heyer’s death, approached her.
“Every time I’ve seen you since then talking to people, you’re the epitome of strength,” he said.
In quieter moments, Bro said, that composure is often lost.
A few days after Thanksgiving, Bro had a dream that the family was waiting around the table for Heyer to join them. Finally, Bro yelled, “She’s dead! She’s not coming!” She woke up crying. Staring at a baby picture of Heyer one December night, she recalled, she cried in a hotel lobby. She thought about holding the urn with her daughter’s ashes, about how it was about the same weight and size in her arms as Heyer had been as a newborn.
Other mothers whose children have died in a horrific and public way have reached out to Bro, and that has helped. There was a mother who lost her child in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Gil Harrington, whose daughter was abducted and killed in Virginia. Others, too, but Bro can’t remember all the names.