Last June, Virginia’s Governor announced the creation of a commission to examine Commonwealth laws that discriminate on the basis of race or gender. The Commission was inspired by the leadership of Senator Lionel Spruill and Delegate Marcia Price in repealing Jim Crow-era minimum wage exemptions during the 2019 legislative session. [See VoxFairfax, 01/28/2019, https://voxfairfax.com/2019/01/28/boys-and-girls-together-trip-the-economic-light-fantastic/.]
Most of the laws cited in the interim report come from 1900-1902, from the time of the Virginia constitutional convention, when Jim Crow-laws had their heyday; most of the latest are from 1956 to 1960. On December 5, the Commission issued an interim report identifying dozens of overtly discriminatory statutes on the books, including codes banning school integration, prohibiting interracial marriage, and prohibiting black and white Virginians from living in the same neighborhoods. While many of these Acts have been overturned in the courts or through later legislation, they remain enshrined in law and testimony to values and beliefs inconsistent with contemporary ones. [See VoxFairfax, 06/08/2018, describing how Loving v. Virginia, 1967, did away with laws against intermarriage; https://voxfairfax.com/2018/06/08/loving-pocahontas-day/.]
Repeal of these outdated, unjust, and in many cases plainly racist Acts of Assembly is an important step in recognizing and correcting the sins of the past.
In the view of the Commission, the work must serve dual purposes: it must purge Virginia’s legislative record of invidious laws and enactments, while also avoiding the unintended consequence of historical sanitization, pretending the laws never existed.
The Commission found a number of laws relating to poll taxes. [Virginia’s poll tax law was ruled unconstitutional in 1966 in Harper v. Virginia.] It also found many in which taxpayer funds were designated as continuing support for the Confederacy:
Any woman who served as a matron in a Confederate hospital for a period of twelve months during the war between the States, shall be allowed … a total of
$12,000 for the care of needy Confederate women in accordance with provisions of the Act.
Virginia [had] the authority to intervene to shut down schools if federal authorities appeared to force integration; to take over school systems if voluntary or forced integration took place, and to create instead a segregated school system…
Some Acts provided evidence of the calculated legislative strategies of the Massive Resistance era to reject Brown v. Board of Education’s mandate for public school desegregation. For example, quoting the interim report, “the 1956 Special Session gave Virginia the authority to intervene to shut down schools if federal authorities appeared to force integration; to take over school systems if voluntary or forced integration took place, and to create instead a segregated school system; to create an exception for compulsory education laws if children did not want to attend integrated schools; to create a voucher system to allow youth not wanting to attend integrated schools to attend private schools; and to accelerate the creation of new, private schools, by both the creation of ‘education grants’ ridding these new private schools of the building code requirements that normally applied to educational institutions.”
In the area of health, Acts from 1914 and 1916 primarily govern Virginia’s mental health institutions, referred to as “colonies for the feeble-minded” or “hospitals for the insane,” and required segregation of those institutions. A 1920 law expanded the Central State Hospital for “colored feeble-minded” to also serve “colored epileptics” and specifically prohibits commitment of white people to Central State Hospital and commitment of colored people to other facilities. Many of Virginia’s laws in this area relied on eugenics and forced sterilization; some 8,000 individuals were forcible sterilized in the Commonwealth between 1924 and 1979, among them Carrie Buck. In 1927, the Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, held that the forced sterilization was legal.
The area of travel was not forgotten. The Commonwealth “went to great lengths to maintain rigid lines of separation between ‘white and colored’ travelers. Some enactments mandated enforcement of racial separation, under threat of criminal prosecution, and afforded conductors and operators virtually unlimited police powers to remove or race test passengers.”
Similar laws were found in the areas of housing, criminal justice, and general law enforcement. Reading these laws is like a journey in time; it’s hard to believe that some were enacted only six decades ago, such as, in 1960: legislation deliberately making it difficult for organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union to operate in Virginia by creating registration, filing, and disclosure hurdles.
As Chair Hudson remarked, “Repeal of these outdated, unjust, and in many cases plainly racist Acts of Assembly is an important step in recognizing and correcting the sins of the past.” The impetus for such a commission may have begun with the Governor’s unfortunate “blackface” embarrassment last year; at the time, he pledged to rid the Commonwealth of all vestiges of racism. The Commission’s work will continue after the 2020 legislative session; as a next step, Commission members will identify laws that appear to be race-neutral or non-discriminatory on their face but that have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequity.
The entire interim report is available here: https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/Interim-Report-From-the-Commission-to-Examine-Racial-Inequity-in-Virginia-Law.pdf.
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