What Happened to All Those Promises to Defend Virginia’s Heritage?

by Donald Smith

Many Bacon’s Rebellion readers — me included — worry that Virginia’s history is being erased and scourged and its heroes demeaned. The November 2021 state elections gave us cause for cheer. During his campaign, Glenn Youngkin indicated that he would stand up to the “Wokerati” working their way through the Old Dominion’s institutions. On November 14, we got more good news: Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, would be the new Speaker of the House of Delegates. “Todd Gilbert ready to take on powerful House Speaker job,” was the headline of Charles Paulin’s Northern Virginia Daily article on December 30.

“As Speaker,” wrote Paulin, “Gilbert will be responsible for overseeing the business of the House, including deciding which bills are called to the floor for a vote and appointing committee chairs.”

Virginia heritage activists had good reason to cheer Gilbert’s speakership. In 2020, when the sitting Speaker of the House pulled statues and busts of Confederate leaders out of the state Capitol building, Gilbert didn’t ignore it. He pushed back. Mocking the claims of the then-speaker, Eileen Filler-Corn, that she wanted to “truly tell the commonwealth’s whole history,” Gilbert pointed out that the state Capitol building had also been the seat of the Confederate government — so shouldn’t we now raze it to the ground?

When the Northam administration and activists pressured Virginia Military Institute’s Superintendent Binford Peay into quickly resigning over sensational charges of systemic racism at VMI,” Gilbert reacted harshly:

When Governor Northam admitted to wearing blackface and appearing in a racially offensive photograph, he sought the grace of the public’s forgiveness. If polling is to be believed, the public has largely extended that grace to him. Now the Virginia Military Institute stands accused of accommodating racist incidents. It’s a shame that Governor Northam couldn’t extend the same amount of grace that he’s been afforded with his own past, at least until we know all the facts.

Another reason for cheer was that Gilbert appeared to be a “Somewhere,” instead of an “Anywhere.” British author David Gilbert coined the terms to differentiate between people who have close ties to a region or culture, versus people who view their current home as simply an address (perhaps temporary) of convenience. Gilbert didn’t represent Fairfax or Loudon or any of the other Northern Virginia counties now dominated by people new to Virginia. His 15th District covers Page and Shenandoah Counties — two Shenandoah Valley counties with many residents whose Virginia ties go back to at least the Civil War. Those people are “Somewheres,” in other words.

Shenandoah County earned lots of press coverage this year when thousands of residents objected to the Shenandoah County School Board removing the names of Confederate generals from local schools. Residents elected new board members, who then tried to change the names back. (The vote was a tie, so the renaming effort failed.) Gilbert seemed in sync with his constituents on Virginia heritage matters, and he now held a position where he could call the name-erasers and statue-pullers on the carpet.

Then, VMI did something that promised to make the situation even more interesting. While cadets were away for the 2021-2022 Christmas break, VMI turned a sandblaster on the inscription of Stonewall Jackson’s name on Old Barracks. By then, everyone knew that the next Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates would hail from a part of Virginia where many residents thought Stonewall Jackson deserved to be respected and honored.

As an Army officer and defense contractor, I’ve seen that big organizations and powerful officials test their opponents to see if they’ll respond. When I heard of the sandblasting, my first reaction was to wonder if the Wokerati at VMI were testing (even daring) Gilbert to see what he would do.

One year later, the Virginia heritage crowd has to be asking itself — what happened? Where did the speaker go? (And, if some folks at VMI really were testing Gilbert — and Youngkin and all the other candidates who ran on defending Virginia’s heritage — they’ve probably had a good laugh by now.) There haven’t been many signs that Speaker Gilbert has pushed back meaningfully on the cancel culture crowd.

It appears he hasn’t compelled state institutions to provide good answers, on the record, to fair questions. Why was it necessary for VMI to turn a sandblaster on a National Historic Landmark? Were the cadets really triggered by Jackson’s name on Old Barracks? Was the faculty triggered? My money is on the faculty; academics are so easily triggered and “harmed” nowadays. Why couldn’t the University of Richmond live with Douglas Southall Freeman’s name on a university building? (Yes, the University of Richmond is a private university, but it’s still a major state education institution and does receive some state funds). Why did John Tyler Community College have to become Brightpoint Community College? There are many state institutions whose actions indicate that they view much of Virginia’s heritage and many of its heroes with contempt.

Anyone with any understanding of American politics knows that a house speaker has many ways to exert influence and hold people or groups to account. That person has many formal and informal powers. It seems that Speaker Gilbert hasn’t employed those powers effectively on Virginia heritage issues.

The musical 1776 is filled with wonderful, inspiring songs. One of them, “Is Anybody There?” stems from a letter General George Washington sent to Congress pleading for help for his starving army. It’s obvious from the lyrics that this is one in a long string of letters with similar pleas that Congress disregarded. At the end of the letter, Washington asks in disgust “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”

Virginia heritage supporters must feel the same way, as they wonder why so many politicians who courted us in the 2021 elections apparently have found more important things to do and more appealing constituencies to court. But, there’s a silver lining to this cloud. Now we can empathize with all those young people who voted for Democrats because they were promised student loan forgiveness.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.