Virginia To Remove Racist Laws From The Past

In retrospect, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine Virginia’s most famous citizen and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson married a 14-year-old enslaved Sally Hemmings when he was 44-years old.

And it’s even harder to imagine that Jefferson’s home state enacted some of the harshest Jim Crow laws that still remain on the books today.

One law on Virginia’s books declares that “no child shall be required to attend integrated schools.” Other laws dictate that white and black Virginians live in separate neighborhoods, and that the races are to be segregated on trains, playgrounds and steamboats.

Those are among nearly 100 antiquated and mostly defunct laws that the former capital of the Confederacy needs to wipe off its books to move beyond its fraught racial history, a state commission announced Thursday in a report.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law was created by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who was embroiled in controversy after a racist photograph resurfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam refused to step down while pledging that he would devote the rest of his term assisting the state in reckoning with its racist past.

“It has no force of law, but the ugly words are still there,” Northam said of the old antiquated laws. “You might ask, ‘Governor, if those old laws aren’t in effect anymore, why does it matter if we take them out or leave them?’ And I would answer you because words matter, and so do actions.”

Despite Virginia being one of the key states to enact the landmark decision, Loving vs. Virginia back in 1967, the state’s laws still reflect a dark history. And even though most of the laws being changed are defunct because of a Supreme Court ruling, every effort is being made to change them.

Northam spoke during a news conference where the report was released. Ironically held at a former downtown Richmond trolley depot that once had segregated waiting rooms for “whites” and “coloreds.” Members of the commission were in attendance along with Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and a local civil rights figure Elizabeth Johnson Rice.

“A lot of people think the Black Caucus took it to the governor,” Bagby said. “No, the governor brought it to the Black Caucus.”

“We know that in Virginia, our history is difficult and extremely complex,” Northam said. “And we know that discrimination, racism, and black oppression marched on, even after slavery ended. In the form of Jim Crow laws, massive resistance [to school integration] and now among other things, mass incarceration.”

Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general, Cynthia Hudson is chairwoman of the commission. While presenting the report to Northam, she said that as an African American, she found the topic “resonates so deeply with me on both personal and professional levels.”

Northam and Hudson firmly expressed that there’s still a lot of work to do.

“As we stand here today there are inequities in access to health care, inequities in access to a world-class education, inequities in access to the criminal justice system, to the voting booth,” Northam said. “You could go on and on. So we still have a lot of work to do.”

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