Finding the words to describe the period of history in which Virginia finds itself is challenging. Readers of this column know that over the past several months I have been using adjectives indicating increasing significance of events that started with the historic (I have used this adjective many times) outcomes of the elections of 2019 to the transformative (future events will prove that this is the correct adjective) legislative session of 2020. Events of the past week add another descriptor of the changes that are taking place in the Old Dominion: monumental. Yes, the word applies to the monuments of which Virginia is home to many, but it applies also to what is happening to these monuments.
Governor Ralph Northam announced last week that the 60-foot high equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue is coming down right away! The Mayor and City Council of Richmond agree that the remaining five other grandiose Confederacy-related statues come down as well. The grand boulevard that was named in 2007 as being one of the “10 Great Streets in America” and was in the early 1900’s a significant part of the Lost Cause movement to glorify and justify the South’s position in the Civil War will be left with one statue–that of Arthur Ashe, the Black Richmond native who was an international tennis star. A bill is being introduced to remove the statue of former governor and U.S. senator Harry Byrd from Capitol Grounds. Byrd is notable as the head of a political machine that maintained its power by keeping Black citizens from voting. He also led the “massive resistance” movement that delayed school desegregation in Virginia by a decade. There will be other monuments coming down in other locations as has already happened in Alexandria City.
Monumental but not relating to the statues is the work done by the General Assembly in its 2020 session to remove from the Code “explicitly racist language and segregationist policies.” While no longer in effect, these parts of the Code nonetheless stood as a reminder of the racist history of the Commonwealth. The changes came from recommendations made by a commission appointed by Governor Ralph Northam to remove laws that “were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity.”
The “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity” that banned interracial marriage was repealed as was the Code provision “no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.” Other state laws to require segregation of the races in transportation and health care facilities were no longer in effect but remained on the books.
While removing statues of people from the past and repealing laws that were previously replaced by other laws or over-ruled by court decisions may be called symbolism by some, the symbols they represent are important. Virginia leaders along with its citizens must make it clear that the divisions of people of the past are over. We need through our words and actions to demonstrate a monument to openness and acceptance of all people.