For nearly 250 years of Virginia’s history Black people in the state were enslaved. Following emancipation there was a denial of the rights of Black people in the state, and Jim Crow laws curtailed their freedom. The Lost Cause movement after the Civil War sought to obscure the treatment of Black people as slaves and downplay any contributions they made to society. Only in recent years with the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements have Black people started to receive the recognition they deserve in society and in the state legislature.
Each day in the Virginia General Assembly history is being made as a record number of 18 Black members serve in the 100-member House of Delegates and three Black members are in the 40-member Senate. For most of my career as a delegate the number of Black legislators in the General Assembly could be counted on the fingers on one hand. For the first time ever, Black women are in leadership roles with the Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the House Minority Caucus Chair. A small but significant example of the changes being made are the daily speeches in the General Assembly during February about notable Black Virginians who have not received the attention they deserve.
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Events leading up to the designation of a Black History Month extend back as far as 1926 when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland started a Negro History Week. The second week of February was chosen as the date to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Hopefully the writing and teaching of more complete histories will reduce the need for separate historic celebrations, but there is so much to do in filling in the blanks of histories in the past that left out so much information or distorted it in so many ways. There is a continuing effort on the part of many who see one-sided historical accounts as benefiting the false narrative they continue to present.
There are real concerns that I and others have about what is happening currently in Virginia. As I discussed in a recent column, the Governor’s Executive Order Number One “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” has fueled this concern. Adding to the Order, the Governor’s setting up a snitch line for parents and others to report on teachers teaching “divisive concepts” raises further concerns.
It’s impossible to teach accurate history without some seeing it as divisive. Hopefully the celebration of Black History Month in the General Assembly will demonstrate that celebrating each other’s successes will not be viewed as divisive but rather as strengthening our common histories and aspirations.