The Washington Post: Black History Month in Virginia
By D.J. Jordan
February 28, 2019
This month has brought a roller coaster of racial controversies in the commonwealth. Starting on the first day of February, the 1984 medical school yearbook of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was revealed, showing one person dressed in blackface and another in a KKK-style white hood and robe. Northam apologized on the day of the revelation only to change his tune the next day, claiming at a news conference that it wasn’t him in the photo.
Northam admitted to wearing blackface as a young person, to imitate Michael Jackson. Now, his wife, Pam Northam, is having to apologize after she handed cotton to black children on a tour of the Governor’s Mansion in February.
Also this month, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface in 1980 as a 19-year-old college student imitating a well-known rapper instead.
In the days following, many Virginians experienced a range of emotions, and painful memories of racism and bigotry were stirred. For most Virginians, it was a grueling reminder of our state’s difficult history on issues involving race.
The Old Dominion has a deep history on this topic. In fact, this year is the 400th anniversary of Africans being brought to Point Comfort as the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in what would become the United States. It was in Virginia that slavery grew and became the backbone of a strong agricultural economy for the colonies and later the Southern states.
Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood was the site of one of the largest slave trades in the country. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Nearly a century later, Massive Resistance occurred in Virginia when Gov. Thomas Stanley (D) closed public schools rather than follow the Supreme Court’s order to integrate them in the 1950s. The latest stain on our commonwealth was the deadly white supremacy rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
But despite the racial challenges in Virginia, the commonwealth has also been the place of great accomplishment and national leadership.
Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia but legally fought and succeeded in gaining his freedom and the freedom of his family. Virginia was the home of Booker T. Washington, Robert Russa Moton and Ella Fitzgerald. In Farmville, a student strike led to the lawsuit of Brown v. The Board of Education case in 1954, an important milestone for the Civil Rights movement.
The United Negro College Fund was created at Holly Knoll in Gloucester, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech for the 1963 March on Washington. Those hallowed grounds on the York River are now maintained by the Gloucester Institute, a minority student leadership development organization founded by Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James, another great African American pioneer from Virginia.
Virginia elected Douglas Wilder governor in 1989, making him the first black governor in the country. To this day, there have only been three elected African American governors.
Virginia is now home of some of the nation’s most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Virginia is home to two of the 10 economically best regions to live in the nation for African Americans: Richmond and the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. region, according to Forbes.
In fact, Northern Virginia is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in America; in my home county, Prince William, minorities make up a majority of the population. As an African American, it’s great to see the various cultures represented in my community.
As we close out this Black History Month, considering the latest racial controversies, let us recommit to being a national leader through healing and by achieving greater racial unity. Here are just two ideas to pursue those goals.
First, we should resist the urge to use race as a political weapon to score partisan points. Name-calling creates division, anger and bitterness, and nowhere is this truer than in politics. Ed Gillespie was the victim of this partisan weaponry in the 2017 gubernatorial election, and it bitterly divided our state.
Second, we must engage each other in meaningful conversations across racial lines in a way that is genuine and productive. In our fast-paced culture, it is often difficult to slow down and hear and learn from one another’s experiences. Humans were created with one mouth but two ears for a reason; perhaps we should take the hint from God. We should listen more and talk less.
Sens. James Lankford and Tim Scott introduced an initiative called “Solution Sunday” in 2016, an idea that simply encourages people to invite families of another race into their homes for Sunday lunch or dinner, for the purpose of getting to know one another in the intimacy of one’s home. The idea is simple yet effective. Trust and understanding happens when we engage and learn from each other’s cultures and experiences.
Virginia isn’t perfect but we’ve come a long way, and we have more growth ahead. February is a month to commemorate the contributions of African Americans, some who overcame segregation, racial prejudice and discrimination to enrich the fabric of American life. The story of African Americans is the story of America.
Virginia is for lovers; this is who we are. As we end Black History Month, let us recommit every month to lead the nation, once again, in achieving opportunity and racial unity.
CLICK HERE to read D.J.’s op-ed online.