There’s a lot of history in the Code of Virginia, the compilation of laws and official acts of the General Assembly, that goes back to the earliest days of the commonwealth. As it turns out, a lot of that history is ugly and tainted with racism and discrimination.
That’s the conclusion of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in Virginia Law, a panel that Gov. Ralph Northam created in June with a mission to delve into laws enacted from 1900 to 1960 and uncover the commonwealth’s long history of racial animus and discrimination.
Chaired by Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson, the panel released its report Thursday and detailed what it said were “deeply troubling” usage of “explicitly racist language and segregationist policies” still written into the state code. Its recommendation to the 2020 session of the General Assembly was repeal of those laws and acts, many of which are no longer in effect but, as the panel said, “remain enshrined in law.”
Some of those laws have been declared unconstitutional or outlawed by state and federal court rulings, others simply have been relegated to the legal ash heap by the passage of time. One of the most infamous still on the books is the “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. It was this law that Virginia used to imprison — and later run out of the state — Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who fell in love and married in 1958. Though upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court, lawyers fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which unanimously ruled the state law unconstitutional in 1967. Loving v. Virginia entered the annals of history as a landmark civil rights ruling and was cited by the justices in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 marriage equality ruling.
But there are also many, less well-known instances of racism and discrimination buried in the 60 years of state laws the commission examined.
There’s a law from 1956, just two years after the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, that was designed to give whites a way to circumvent sending their children to newly integrated schools. That law exempted children from compulsory attendance if the school they would attend were integrated. Another companion law required localities offer “grants” to private schools for white students who didn’t want to attend integrated public schools.
Then there are the laws designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for non-whites to vote — the state poll tax which became law in 1903 and the requirement that local registrars keep separate lists of registered votes by race. In a similar vein, language in the law requiring clerks of court to ask for the race of each applicant for a marriage license are still in the code; that law was only declared unconstitutional in October of this year.
The code also reveals how the government used the law to enforce apartheid in the commonwealth, even down to where a person could be treated for mental illness or buy a house. A 1914 law, for example, created Central State Hospital for mentally ill African Americans, so mentally ill whites could have a hospital of their own. Four years later, another law required people with tuberculosis, a disease raging through the population at the time, be treated in separate facilities based solely on their race. Separate housing districts were also the subject of discriminatory state laws, designed to allow whites to live apart from people of other races.
Now we’re sure there are some folks who may look upon the work of this commission and its recommendation to repeal these offensive laws and regulations as “erasing history.” After all, they’re no longer in effect, having been declared unconstitutional or simply obsolete. Why dwell on the past, some people may ask, as there are many more pressing current issues to deal with.
Our answer would be to repeat what Gov. Northam said Thursday when the report was released: “We created this commission because it is time Virginia take steps to right old wrongs. We know discrimination, racism and black oppression went on after slavery ended.”
Repeal these laws, the governor said, even though they’re no longer in effect, “because words matter.”