A Look Back At Virginia's Racial Past In Context Of The Today's Turmoil

Feb 6, 2019
Originally published on February 6, 2019 8:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These scandals consuming Richmond this week are a reminder of the complicated racial history that underpins Virginia politics. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more on that.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Democrat Ralph Northam had strong support from African-American voters in his 2017 race for governor. Now black leaders say they've been let down after seeing the racist photo in his medical school yearbook. Robert Barnett is vice president of the Virginia NAACP, which has called for Northam to resign.

ROBERT BARNETT: Those images bring back hate, bring to memory of things that we're trying to heal over - get over, put in the past. And with those images, it doesn't do that - doesn't do that at all.

ELLIOTT: The weight of history is strong in the Commonwealth, says historian Gregg Kimball with the Library of Virginia.

GREGG KIMBALL: The system of enslavement that we know in America really was born here in a way.

ELLIOTT: Born here 400 years ago this year. Richmond is a walking tour of American history. Thomas Jefferson designed the Capitol. There's the White House of the Confederacy and the site of one of the nation's busiest slave markets. There's been a concerted effort to move from Old South nostalgia to telling the broader story of Virginia's history.

CHRISTY COLEMAN: So this is our new facility...

ELLIOTT: Christy Coleman is the CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which is creating a new space along the Richmond riverfront, a modern glass structure built around the brick ruins of an iron foundry that once supplied the U.S. Navy and the Confederacy.

COLEMAN: We really wanted to create a space where immediately coming into it, you see this connection between past and present.

ELLIOTT: Coleman says the scandals rocking the capital reveal the need for a deeper understanding of history and what the Ku Klux Klan and blackface actually represent.

COLEMAN: For a lot of people, I mean, those images, even if they're 35 years ago, still have a real power and they have an ugliness and - because they're both tied to a form of domestic terrorism that the nation still deals with, right?

ELLIOTT: Not many politicians have stood by Northam. But today, Republican State Senator Richard Stuart, a friend, came to his defense.

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RICHARD STUART: I think we need to give him the chance to stand up and work through this. And I think that in the long run, that can be very helpful to the Commonwealth and the country.

ELLIOTT: He says poor judgement years ago should not outweigh Northam's service given that racial attitudes in rural Virginia at the time were far different than they are today. The chairman of the state's Republican Party, Jack Wilson, is not buying that defense.

JACK WILSON: If you're in your mid-20s dressing in blackface or a KKK robe, that's a little bit beyond youthful indiscretions at that point.

ELLIOTT: Northam has said he's not in the photo after first indicating that he was. Regardless, Wilson says Northam should resign so the state can move on.

Democrat Kimberly Gray is on the Richmond City Council. Her district includes Monument Avenue, the street famous for Civil War figures.

KIMBERLY GRAY: This is massive.

ELLIOTT: Under the imposing and controversial Robert E. Lee Memorial, Gray reflects on how this episode in Virginia politics is yet another chapter in navigating a fraught past.

GRAY: This is our history, and it is part of who we are. And we need to figure out how to reconcile it.

ELLIOTT: Gray, who is biracial, says although she's disheartened, she's hopeful talking honestly can help move the Commonwealth forward.

GRAY: We're a strong community of people. We do love each other. The vast majority of us are not racist, but we have to come together, and we have to embrace each other.

ELLIOTT: As for the governor, Gray says, she doesn't see how he can remain in power. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.