The Loving Legacy
Five interracial couples tell their love stories in a state where it was once a crime for Mildred and Richard Loving to marry
Most Americans have never heard of Mildred and Richard Loving. But next week, a Hollywood movie will introduce the country to a time and place — 58 years ago in Virginia — when a sheriff could burst into a couple’s bedroom and arrest them for being married.
“Loving,” which opens in theaters Nov. 4, tells the story of Mildred and Richard, young romantics who became felons when they dared to wed in 1958. She was black, he was white, and that was a crime in Virginia and 23 other states. They were arrested, convicted and banished from their home state. But their legal fight led to the 1967 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia that ended miscegenation laws in the 16 states where they were still on the books.
The pair returned to Virginia and, slowly, Virginia began to look more like them. Black hands joined with white hands at altars from Hampton Roads to Herndon as the state that once served as the capital of the Confederacy grew more populous, more diverse and more tolerant. By 2010, Virginia led the nation in the rate of black-white marriages, according to the Pew Research Center. And while racism hasn’t disappeared, the state’s marital melting pot now includes people from all over the world. Few heads turn at the sight of a Venezuelan-Indian couple or a Korean bride with her white groom or, since same-sex marriage became legal two years ago, lesbians of different colors exchanging vows.
Today, Virginia is for Lovings, as these portraits of five mixed-race marriages show.
— Steve Hendrix
Aisha and Scott Cozad, Woodbridge
Almost fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned laws against interracial marriage in the case of Mildred and Richard Loving, their story is featured in a film coming out on Nov. 4. Three modern-day couples talk about the impact the case has had on their relationship.
They met online. They married on Loving Day.
A less brave man may not have pursued Aisha Bonner after reading her online dating profile, which was written to deter, not attract. Tired of wasting time on the wrong people, she was clear about whom she didn’t want.
Her 11-year-old son was her priority, she wrote. So if a man couldn’t deal with a child, he should move on.
She had a doctorate and loved reading, she wrote. So if a man couldn’t handle a smart woman, he should move on.
Her list went on, each description followed by the same siren blaring “move on, move on.” But Scott Cozad didn’t move on. He was swept in. He sent her an email that stretched for pages, and it was clear that despite their skin color — he’s white, and she’s black — the two shared much in common. Scott’s profile had its own siren of sorts. His picture showed him in a suit of armor, a nod to his love of historical reenactments. Aisha was swept in.
“If he had been born during the Renaissance, he would have definitely been a knight in shining armor,” the 42-year-old social science researcher said one evening sitting in the couple’s Woodbridge home.
“Eww,” her now 13-year-old son Brandon jokingly gagged.
Last year, Scott and Aisha said their vows in front of friends and relatives who have shown them nothing but support. But in many ways theirs is not a marriage of two. It is a union of three.
On their wedding day, Brandon asked Scott if he could now call him Dad. “Yeah,” Scott replied.
“Honestly, if I had tried to say more, I would have fallen to pieces,” said Scott, 40, a systems engineer.
Aisha, who took her husband’s last name, said Scott and Brandon share many similarities, among them a love of hamburgers, an ease talking to strangers and a penchant for cheesy jokes (although Brandon points out that his, at least, make people laugh).
But their union has not come without challenges. Scott, who has no children from a previous marriage, said he hasn’t had to learn only how to be a father, but also how to be a father to a black son.
A simple conversation about buying toy guns in their home carries with it the weight of a national conversation about police shootings of unarmed African Americans.
“They have all these cool Nerf guns,” Scott said. “But I’m apprehensive about getting them for him and going out there.”
“It’s more than apprehensive,” Aisha said. Her son has never played with toy guns because “I’m not going to risk his life.”
“Everyone I know has Nerf guns, even younger kids,” Brandon said, not complaining as much as explaining.
Scott also recalled how out of place he felt the first time he took Brandon to a black barbershop. By their second visit, he said he felt comfortable enough to ask the barber “dumb questions.” Now, he has the shop’s number programmed into his phone.
Before Scott met Aisha, he had never heard of Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple behind the Supreme Court’s June 12, 1967, decision to legalize interracial marriage, a date celebrated nationally as Loving Day. Then the two watched a documentary that moved them both.
Not long after that, Scott was at Brandon’s soccer game when Aisha called to say she had almost been in a car accident. He decided then that he didn’t want to move on — ever. Over the phone, he asked her to marry him. He said he knew the perfect date: Loving Day.
— Theresa Vargas
Yesica Suarez and Akshaan Arora, Fairfax
Yesica Suarez and Akshaan Arora met in college. She's from Venezuela; he's from India. She's a devout Catholic; he's a Hindu-turned-atheist. She grew up speaking Spanish and watching telenovelas; he grew up speaking Hindi and watching Bollywood musicals.
‘My Big Fat Indian-Venezuelan-American weddings’
Yesica Suarez cracked open the oven, flooding the Northern Virginia apartment with an unusual but intoxicating blend of aromas. Indian spinach patties sizzled on the top rack. Underneath, spicy lentil cakes called dhoklas sat next to a tray of fried cheese tequeños.
Inside the small Fairfax kitchen, Yesica set out the food as a dozen relatives of all ages and races revolved around her. Her beloved, Akshaan Arora, snacked on chocolate-covered strawberries. His aunt Savita served samosas. Spanish, Hindi and English mixed.
“It’s like ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ ” Yesica said. Or in their case, “My Big Fat Indian-Venezuelan-American Weddings.”
Yesica is from Venezuela. Akshaan is from India. Fifty years ago, their union might have confounded the defenders of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which banned interracial marriage. Now the question isn’t whether they should wed, but how — and how many times.
Yesica, 28, was raised Catholic in San Cristobal, Venezuela. Akshaan, 27, was raised Hindu in New Delhi. They both arrived in Northern Virginia as teens and wound up at George Mason University, one of the country’s most diverse campuses.
They met in 2008 through their business fraternity. She thought the tall, unshaven guy in a suit several sizes too big was handsome but “grungy.” He thought she was pretty and smart but also “very uptight.”
“I thought I was going to marry a Venezuelan,” Yesica recalled. “I thought I couldn’t connect with anyone else.”
Her Indian roommate freshman year, however, made her realize how similar the two cultures were: the family get-togethers, the curfews, the nightly phone calls.
Falling in love meant learning about each other’s culture. In 2011, Yesica went to India for the wedding of Akshaan’s sister. The food was strange, and the ceremony was huge, yet the tight family bonds felt familiar. When Akshaan’s grandfather became fatally ill two years later, his family was touched when Yesica said a Catholic prayer at his bedside.
Akshaan proposed on July 13, 2013, aboard a boat on the Chesapeake Bay. When he shakily knelt and produced the ring, she shrieked incomprehensibly and kissed him so hard they nearly fell overboard.
How they would get married was a harder question. Her family wanted a Catholic wedding. His family wanted a Hindu ceremony. The couple wanted to ensure that their friends all felt welcome. The debate dragged on for so long that Yesica, an accounting supervisor at George Mason, and Akshaan, a capital markets manager, secretly exchanged vows. (So technically, they’re already married.)
Three years later, they have finally figured out the ceremony. Or ceremonies, rather. Yesica and Akshaan will wed at an oceanside resort in Cancun, Mexico, on Dec. 19. A week later, they’ll repeat their “I do’s” in a much smaller Catholic ceremony at a Virginia church. And on New Year’s Eve, they will don traditional Indian dress and walk around a fire pit seven times as part of their Hindu vows. Preparing for the triple wedding has been precarious, however.
“It upsets them when they think one wedding is more important than the others,” Yesica said of family members.
A blackboard in the kitchen hinted at the compromises already made and the cultural mash-ups still to come. “Suarez-Arora House,” it said above the wedding to-do list including buying a sari, renting a tux, Catholic wedding counseling and “punjabi + salsa dance classes.”
“Akshaan, you’re taking salsa lessons?” asked Yesica’s mom, Florangel Pernia.
“She said she wants to do a routine” at the wedding, he replied.
“Don’t forget Spanish lessons for me,” interjected his aunt. “I want to learn.”
— Michael E. Miller
Ron and Barbara Campbell, Leesburg
Ron Campbell and Barb Lawrence have been married for many years. It's his second marriage and her first. He's running for city council in Leesburg, Virginia.
A new culture in the family
Ron Campbell was wearing a full African robe when he met his future mother-in-law at the door and welcomed her to his Kwanzaa party. He usually wore sportswear and golf caps — and he never celebrated Kwanzaa. But it was his first Christmas season with his white girlfriend, Barb Lawrence, and he wanted her Minnesota relatives to know: There was a new culture in the family.
“I told her mom,” Ron says 20 years later, “This is not about you feeling comfortable with me; it’s about me feeling comfortable with you.”
For Diane Lawrence, it was all new. There weren’t any African Americans in the tiny town near the Canadian border where she was the lunch lady at the all-white school.
When she visited her grown kids in “the cities” — where they had moved in search of careers, partners, a wider world — she locked her doors driving through black neighborhoods. “It was just instinct,” she says.
Her youngest daughter, Barbara, was working at the University of Minnesota when she met Ron. She was ending a go-nowhere relationship with a “good-looking lawyer” whom her mom adored. Ron was a vice president at the university and recently divorced. They were introduced at a conference happy hour. It was real from the start.
“I’ve never felt love like I feel from Ron,” says Barb.
Ron, now 63, was never one to tiptoe around race. He came from a politically active family in the Bronx, went to Heidelberg University in Ohio and is the only black face in his fraternity photo. His first wife was a Puerto Rican woman, and they taught their four kids to “Go where you want, shop where you want, be who you are.”
Two of his sons are married to white women. His daughter, Serena Plaskett, said her only trepidation about her dad remarrying in 1999 was being presented with a stepmother, not a white stepmother. “There was this new woman coming in,” says Plaskett, a medical assistant in Richmond.
Now she describes the woman her kids call YaYa as “amazing. I can talk to her more than I can my dad.”
Barb’s father was easy to win over, too. Soon he and Ron were playing golf. Barb’s mother struggled. She was too Minnesota nice to say anything, but she struggled. Some of her small-town neighbors made comments. Some still do.
Comfort takes time. It took months before Barb, now 51, felt welcomed by the black wives and girlfriends in Ron’s circle. Maybe the Minneapolis Realtor who would talk only to her never felt it. Maybe the waiter who ignored them recently in a Northern Virginia restaurant never will.
The Campbells moved to Leesburg in 2001, a small town that is 70 percent white. They go to a black church. Barb works in health care. Ron, a semi-retired consultant, is running to become the only black member of the Leesburg Town Council. The lines are mixed and everywhere and unimportant, all at once.
“We feel good here,” Barb said, sitting in their townhouse, piles of campaign signs stacked around the walls.
Her mom feels good now, too. Now when Ron visits, she shouts, “There’s a black man in my house!” before giving him the huge hug. And in August, when everybody brought a hot dish to a Lawrence family party, she says her relatives asked, “ ‘Where’s Ron? Isn’t Ron going to make it?’ They all love him. We all do.”
— Steve Hendrix
India Lipton and Shirley Lesser, Richmond
Shirley Lesser, 53, and India Lipton, 44, got married live on the six o'clock news the day Virginia allowed gay marriage. They are looking at their son Dylan, age 4, at play.
They longed to marry — and finally they could
Each year on Valentine’s Day, India Lipton and Shirley Lesser would head to Richmond’s courthouse to protest the fact that they could not marry in Virginia. The state that once banned interracial marriages still refused to allow lesbians of any color to wed.
On the day that finally changed, India and Shirley had been together 12 years and become the parents of a young son, Dylan, who had serious medical issues. They’d been united in a civil union but longed to wed, in part, so that Shirley could legally adopt their son.
When the news broke the morning of Oct. 6, 2014, that the federal courts had forced Virginia and several other states to allow same-sex marriage, India called Shirley, ecstatic.
They hurried to the Chesterfield County courthouse for a marriage license. They had no time to buy wedding dresses. Friends would have to pick up the cake. They scrambled to get a minister. Whoever was available would do.
“Shirley and I decided to do it quickly,” said India, now 44. “We thought, ‘Why wait?’ ”
They’d waited long enough. They met online in 2003 and fell in love almost immediately. Their racial differences — India’s mother is black and her father is Native American and Italian, while Shirley, now 53, is white — didn’t matter to either of them.
India gave birth to Dylan on Valentine’s Day in 2012. He was nearly three months premature and suffered from hydrocephalus, commonly known as water on the brain. Now 4, Dylan has had 22 surgeries to drain the fluid that builds up beneath his skull. The condition triggered seizures and left Dylan with cerebral palsy.
Yet there were moments at the hospital when people questioned Shirley’s presence at Dylan’s side. How, they wanted to know, was that her kid?
“Shirley really wanted to adopt Dylan because she did not have legal rights to him,” said India, who stays home to care for him. “Even though we had planned him together, and I gave physical birth to him, she had no rights to him. There would have had to have been a legal dance for her to get rights.”
Shirley, who works at a bank in Richmond, said she and India have always been aware of the parallels between their relationship and the Lovings, who married in defiance of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. “The laws of the land have gotten in the way of us trying to live a normal ordinary life,” Shirley explained.
Their gay, multiracial household is “confusing when people look at us as a family,” she said, especially because Dylan looks more Asian than black. “We get a lot of, ‘Did you adopt him from another country?’ ” Having two moms makes it complicated. And the racial thing makes it complicated.”
But their love for each other is simple.
When they were finally able to marry, they didn’t care that they were exchanging their vows at their favorite deli. They didn’t care that the local television station was there, cameras rolling. They didn’t care that India had on a pair of black pants and a black shirt with white lace around the collar or that Shirley wore a black pullover, a blue blouse and black pants. They held Dylan in their arms, and their friends cheered.
“It was pretty crazy,” India remembered. “ It was surreal.”
Less than three months later, Shirley became one of the first gay parents in Virginia to legally adopt a child. No one would be able to question their family ever again.
— DeNeen L. Brown
Michael and Theresa McLaughlin, Virginia Beach
Theresa McLaughlin and son Mikey, age 4, are in Virginia Beach, Va., as Mike McLaughlin (husband and father) is stationed in Japan. The family communicates often via FaceTime on their smartphones. Mikey is outside trying to show his dad (thousands of miles away) a spider he saw.
For Navy couple, race isn’t the issue. Distance is.
The boy stood amid his pile of dinosaur toys and waited, as he has almost every evening since April, for the cellphone to ring. And when it did, Mikey McLaughlin looked up at his mother, eyes wide.
“That’s Daddy,” he announced, and minutes later the 4-year-old was staring at an iPhone’s video screen as he talked with his father, Michael, who had just woken up.
“Hey, buddy,” said the Navy lieutenant, hair matted and eyes rimmed with dark circles.
Mikey has never cared that his mother, Theresa, is Asian American and that his father is white. They met at the U.S. Naval Academy, falling for each other on a campus where interracial relationships are unremarkable. Only once that they can remember — before she first met his family — did race come up. “This isn’t an issue, right?” asked Theresa, who had been adopted from South Korea at 3 months old by a white couple. He assured her it wasn’t.
They realize Mikey may want to know more about his biracial roots as he grows older or may ask questions about the differences between him and his father. If he does, his parents will help explain, take him to Korea, whatever he wants. But for now, race isn’t the McLaughlins’ biggest issue. Distance is. They want their child to have the support of two parents, even when one is deployed 7,000 miles away in Japan and hasn’t held his boy for six months.
“I want to do taekwondo,” Mikey told his dad earlier this month as Theresa prepared dinner in their Virginia Beach kitchen.
“Mikey, do you want tabbouleh?” she asked, and the boy nodded.
“Wait. What?” Michael said, stunned by his son’s new affinity for a healthy food. But he and his wife, both 29, are used to surprises like this — and to missing things. He didn’t see Mikey start crawling, and, before she left the military earlier this year, Theresa didn’t see his first day of preschool.
Even their son’s arrival was followed by absence. Michael returned from a deployment in the Arabian Sea for the birth, but Mikey’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, forcing doctors to perform an emergency Caesarean section. Days later, Michael had to leave.
In one wrenching stretch of 2015, they both deployed at the same time — him to Europe, her to South America. And the challenges didn’t end when Theresa left the Navy. The older he gets, the more Mikey misses his dad. At pools and parks, he often stares in silence at kids playing with their fathers.
But the McLaughlins have worked hard to parent together. Years ago, Michael recorded himself reading Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If —” so Mikey could learn his voice. Later, father and son constructed a miniature display of the solar system’s planets that now hangs above Mikey’s bed and that, he said, always reminds him of Dad.
And, each day, they have their FaceTime calls.
On this night, Mikey discussed trick-or-treating plans, practiced spelling “milk” and spun around in the living room until his dad noticed he’d grown as tall as the fireplace.
And when he coughed, his parents, on opposite sides of the planet, said in unison: “Cover your mouth.” And when he didn’t, Michael offered a familiar instruction: “Buddy, listen to your mother.”
Then they talked a few minutes more before Michael said he had to shower and shave, so they exchanged goodbyes.
“Love you in the morning, Dad,” Mikey told him, and Theresa picked up the phone to end the call.
— John Woodrow Cox