Del. Ken Plum: Lessons From a Racist Past

by Del. Ken Plum March 7, 2019 at 11:45 am 0

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

The Virginia General Assembly was adjourning for the year as the film “Green Book” was receiving “Best Picture” recognition at the 91st Oscars. While the story line of the movie may have been fictional, the Green Book was reality in the Jim Crow South.

Segregated facilities of hotels, restaurants, public bathrooms and transportation in Virginia and throughout the South necessitated Black travelers having a guide like the Green Book, a small book with a green cover, to let them know where they could stop to use the bathroom, eat a meal or spend the night. It was not unlike a AAA travel guide except that its listings were just for Black travelers. The movie — without exaggeration — lets recent generations know just how segregated the South was.

As part of the Black History Month celebration in the House of Delegates, a different delegate speaks each day about a famous Black person, an interesting Black person from the past who may not have made the history books or the experience of growing up Black.

One day this session. Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton spoke of her experiences growing up Black in segregated Virginia and her family’s use of the Green Book in their vacation travels. There were special challenges to be met when public bathrooms or restaurants were further than needed.

Other symbols of the challenges of growing up Black in a racist society like Virginia and the South were shockingly brought to our attention this legislative session. The cruel part that blackface played in white entertainment may have been unknown to many younger persons or forgotten by others but must be acknowledged and dealt with in repentance by those who took part including the governor and the attorney general.

To include white robes and hoods in entertainment is to overlook that these are symbols of hate, violence, cross burning, lynchings and white supremacy. Public officials must disavow these symbols unequivocally and provide leadership in healing the communities that have been wounded by signs of white supremacy.

Outside the capitol near the governor’s mansion is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. It features the walk out of Prince Edward schools led by 16-year old Barbara Johns, a factor in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Public schools were not simply segregated, but they were totally unequal.

This legislative session we were reminded by the work of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis of the differences that continue to exist among white and minority facilities, programs and services. The approved budget made some improvements in reducing the inequities among facilities and services that have disadvantaged Black people. There is a new awareness of the work that needs to be done to overcome our racist past.

Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk spoke out forcefully on the floor of the House of Delegates reminding us of our history and the need to take action in the future. The speech of this young Black delegate is worth a listen for it is a powerful statement of the need to overcome our racist past.

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