As a life-long resident of Virginia for seven decades (there, I have said it), I have seen many changes. Occasionally, reminders of these changes are especially striking. One of those stark reminders occurred about 10 years ago. I was sitting in on a General Assembly committee meeting in which the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court gives sort of an annual report to the legislature. The Chief Justice at the time was Leroy Hassell, the first black chief justice. It suddenly hit me: Wow! The Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, an imposing black man! Virginia has really come a long way over the last 30-40 years.
I just finished a remarkable book that brought more reminders. The book is We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spotswood Robinson, and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow by Margaret Edds. The author combines the best of two worlds: thorough and detailed scholarly research and the writing of a journalist.
Growing up in Halifax County during most of the events described in the book, I was oblivious to most of what was going on. Of course, I have since become aware of the general history, but, it was good to get into the details and have my many misconceptions corrected.
Of course, I was aware, if subconsciously, of the prevailing atmosphere and attitudes of whites in Virginia in the 1950s that Edds describes: blacks were inferior, separation of the races was natural, the NACCP was evil, Northerners were trying to destroy the Southern way of life, etc. I absorbed those attitudes and, to my chagrin, it was not until my senior year in high school that, at the prodding of the girl that later became my wife, I began to shed them.
Today, there has been a sea change. In Halifax County, the newspapers extol the achievements of black, as well as white, students. A few years ago, a black circuit court judge was honored upon his retirement. It is not uncommon to see mixed-race couples in the shopping center or in the restaurants.
In Richmond’s Capitol Square, the changes are on dramatic display. In one corner, there is a statute of Harry Byrd, the architect of Massive Resistance, followed by several statutes of Civil War figures. Then in the opposite corner from Byrd is the large, striking memorial to the black Prince Edward County students who led the school walkout that resulted in the case that was part of the historic Supreme Court desegregation decision. That memorial includes a sculpture of Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson, the black Richmond lawyers who were part of the inner circle of lawyers who worked for decades with the NAACP to overturn the Jim Crow laws that Harry Byrd defended. Down the hill from the Civil Rights memorial is a state office building named for Oliver Hill. Across the street from Capitol Square and the Byrd statute is a state office building named for Barbara Johns, the student leader of the Prince Edward school walkout.
Although Virginia still has problems and shortcomings, as are pointed out daily on this blog, there is no question that the Commonwealth is reinventing itself in the 21st Century.There are currently no comments highlighted.