Protests over Confederate monuments. A right-wing rally turned deadly in Charlottesville. And now, a racist photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook.
In an era when all of the United States are reexamining their history of racism, no state has had to look itself in the mirror more than Virginia. Its proud history as the home of presidents and patriots also includes ignoble chapters as the epicenter of the slave trade and capital of the Confederacy.
If slavery is the original sin of American life, Virginia is its Garden of Eden.
“I some ways, my personal history mirrors that of this commonwealth,” Northam himself said in a press conference Saturday, admitting to a blackface impersonation of Michael Jackson but denying he was in the 1984 yearbook photo featuring a robed Klansman and a man in blackface.
“There are actions and behaviors in my past that were hurtful. But, like Virginia, I have also made significant progress in how I approach these issues,” he said.
Over the several years, that progress has come with pain.
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In 2006, Sen. George Allen lost his re-election bid – and his presidential aspirations – after a racist remark at campaign rally. He referred to an Indian-American opposition tracker who had infiltrated the rally as “Macaca,” a Portuguese word for monkey and a slur against dark-skinned people.
He apologized and lost.
A right-wing backlash to protests of Confederate memorials turned deadly in Charlottesville in 2017. A neo-Nazi from Ohio drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The incident led only to a greater push to remove memorials in places like Richmond, the state capital whose Monument Avenue remains as the most prominent symbol of the “Lost Cause” revisionist history of the Civil War. The state legislature still forbids the removal of the statues.
And now, Northam’s yearbook photo has prompted an examination into the culture of its educational institutions: the Virginia Military Institute, where he was an undergrad, and the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk where the 1984 photo was taken.
“Virginia in some ways is a state struggling with its self-identity,” said Stephen Farnsworth, who studies Virginia politics at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “There are so many competing narratives about what Virginia is.”
Fault line of American politics
The Confederacy continues to cast a long shadow over a new Virginia that is increasingly diverse, educated, suburban and liberal.
Virginia was the capital of the breakaway southern states but also its most northern member. It was also home to more Civil War battles than any other state.
It’s 19th-century farming economy – fueled by free labor from enslaved African-Americans – has now transformed into a 21st-century technology hub that attracts a diverse and educated workforce. More than half of Virginians were born somewhere else.
“Virginia is on the fault line of the old South and the new,” said Farnsworth.
“The Old Dominion is much more aggressively contested political space than you would see in many other southern states. And that means a lot of arguments over its past,” he said.
That past runs deep. Virginia was the home of the first permanent English settlement in what’s now the United States, at Jamestown, in 1607. Twelve years later, the first slaves from Africa arrived there.
Virginia claims the first Thanksgiving, and four of the first five presidents. (It’s given birth to eight overall – more than any other state.)
After the importation of new slaves was outlawed in 1808, Richmond became the hub for the domestic slave trade, allowing for vast plantations and immense wealth for their owners. And when the south seceded from the union in 1861, Virginia was the richest state in what would have been the fourth richest country in the world.
Julian Maxwell Hayter, a historian at the University of Richmond, says that history continues to cast a shadow throughout the commonwealth today.
“What you’ve seen over time is this deeply entrenched wealth reasserting itself though Jim Crow, and through most of the 20th century,” said Hayter, author of The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s one of the few places in the south where people pride themselves on their direct lineage to the first families.
“So I find it interesting that people are surprised that this stuff lasted well into the twilight of the 20th century. Those things persist throughout the system itself, and they have a longer shelf life than people tend to recognize,” he said.
But at the same time – as one of Virginia’s many contradictions – it also has a racially progressive strain. The 51-year-old Supreme Court decision allowing blacks and whites to marry came out of Virginia, and the state has one of the highest rates of interracial marriage today.
Photo gallery: Lawyers marry on anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia ruling
“Virginians know they’re southern but they always considered themselves more refined than their brothers in the deep south,” Hayter said. “It’s full of these kinds of contradictions, and by the way it’s in keeping with the things that Ralph Northam has been accused of.”
“Americans like their racism black and white. We don’t do well with granularity,” he said.
That’s led to some awkward juxtapositions. Until 2000, the Martin Luther King Day holiday was celebrated on the same day honoring two Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
The Lee-Jackson-King day was a compromise hashed out by then state Sen. Douglas Wilder, later the state’s first African-American governor. “You recognize Virginia for what it is. Virginia’s heritage is as rich as it has ever been,” he told the Washington Post in 1985.
And just last month, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax – only the second African-American officeholder in the state’s history – stepped off the dais of the state Senate rather than preside over an annual celebration of Lee’s birthday.
From blue to red to purple
Like most states, a map of election results shows deep reds in rural counties and even deeper blues in the cities.
As the cites and their suburbs have grown – in large part with non-native college students, federal workers and contractors – so have the ranks of Democratic voters.
The state voted reliably Republican in every election from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush – but has gone Democratic for three elections in a row in favor of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
State elections are even more competitive. With the strictest term limits in the nation, the governor’s office changes hands every four years. Seven Democrats and six Republicans have served since 1970.
More than 248,000 active duty, reserve and civilian military personnel are stationed in Virginia – including, of course, the Pentagon – making its military population second only to California.
The large number of federal contractors, along with cheap electricity and an educated workforce, have spawned a secondary high-tech industry in Northern Virginia: Data centers. More than half of all Internet traffic in the country goes through the Dulles Technology corridor. Add to that strains of religion – from Bible-belt evangelical Christianity to more liberal churches.
At many of those churches Sunday, the Northam controversy caused some soul-searching about how to grapple honestly with issues of race.
“Today, I think people are asking the authentic question of how do you deal with the hypocrisy,” said Mark Gordon, the former senior warden for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond after services Sunday morning.
St. Paul’s, once known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy” because Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee worshiped there, sits directly across from the state Capitol.
More: Richmond churches seek racial reconciliation following Northam fiasco
The church has now dedicated itself to racial reconciliation, Gordon said. “If you look at the movement and the conversation, we at St. Paul’s on our history and what’s happening with the history of the Commonwealth,” he said. “The recent episode is a realization that the past is still with us and it has to be reconciled for us to move forward.”
Gregory Korte reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Laura Peters and Rilyn Eischens of the Staunton News-Leader in Richmond, Va.