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In Virginia, More to 'Get Over' Than Slavery

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 20, 2007

On last Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Frank D. Hargrove, a Republican lawmaker in Virginia's House of Delegates, said that instead of seeking a formal apology from the commonwealth for slavery, "black citizens should get over it." Hargrove also reportedly wondered how far such apologies should go. "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"

Frank Hargrove is one reason that young African Americans should never take their hard-won rights for granted. His outlook is also a wake-up call to some of my Jewish friends who think they have it made.

He has nothing I want, including an apology. But I'm not getting over slavery.

There's nothing quite like going to a county office building down in Culpeper County, Va., and finding evidence of your family's enslavement. I did that several years ago.

Pages of land records confirmed the story I had heard since I was a young boy: that my late mother's maiden name, Colbert (my first name), was taken from a white Culpeper County family that had the last name Colbert and that owned my great-grandfather and his siblings before the Civil War.

The documented portrayal of my bloodline isn't easily forgotten. Those relatives of mine were considered legal property, which explains why they were listed by name, with individually assigned monetary value, among the inventory of farm implements, barnyard animals and other Colbert-owned assets.

"Get over it." Not likely.

Hargrove was correct when he told the House of Delegates on Tuesday that "not a soul in this legislature" had anything to do with slavery. It was before their time. But Virginia's shameful history on race is not limited to slavery.

Hargrove, who will be 80 next week, cannot escape the fact that he and many white Virginians alive today were present when the spirit of Jim Crow reigned supreme in the Old Dominion.

Hargrove was 17 when the Virginia legislature passed a law requiring separate white and black waiting rooms at airports. Surely he must have heard about that.

When Hargrove was 29, Sen. Harry Byrd declared massive resistance to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision desegregating public schools. Did he miss that?

What did 31-year-old Hargrove think in 1958 when the General Assembly passed a series of laws to prevent school desegregation, including a measure forbidding state funds to be spent on integrated schools? That was a memorable year. And the next year, Prince Edward County went to an extreme to protect lily-white education. It closed the school system rather than integrate.

Recall (courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society) this repugnant chapter of Virginia's racial history that occurred in Hargrove's time:

· On Feb. 20, 1960, students from the historically black Virginia Union University entered Woolworth's department store on Broad Street in Richmond, sat at the lunch counter and patiently waited to be served. Instead, the management closed the store.

· On June 9, 1960, an integrated group of youths sat at a Peoples Drug store lunch counter in Arlington. Waitresses served the whites, then walked away. A few minutes later, the lunch counter was closed.

· In 1963, protesters gathered in front of the College Shoppe Restaurant on Main Street in Farmville. Management refused to serve blacks. Sheriff's deputies, in keeping with Virginia's Jim Crow laws, forcibly removed them.

Today, black Virginians no longer must ride in the backs of buses. They aren't confined to theater balconies or other designated areas. Their visits to restrooms, parks, beaches and swimming pools are not blocked by "White Only" signs.

Most changes didn't result from state action. Virginia's Jim Crow system was brought down by a combination of lawsuits, a courageous civil rights movement, people such as Elaine R. Jones and Oliver W. Hill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and federal civil rights laws.

And contrary to what Frank Hargrove and others may wish to believe, the state's legacy of segregation and discrimination in education and employment has harmed many black Virginians, depriving them of the tangible benefits enjoyed by their white counterparts.

Professor Richard F. America put it this way in his book "Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America": "Discrimination is good for someone, but most people have chosen to think of it merely as unkind or socially unfair. . . . Restitution theory strips away the pretense. It lets us see how discrimination has indirectly enriched millions of people relative to those who have been excluded."

Now chill. This piece isn't about reparations. It is, however, a reminder -- as if one is needed -- that the Emancipation Proclamation did not remove the shackles from the descendants of slaves; that injustice and inequality were an integral part of Virginia during the adult life of Frank Hargrove.

Which gets me to the source of his consternation: the legislative proposal for Virginia to issue an apology for slavery. I'm not sure it's worth the trouble. But if the effort must be made, why should the apology be limited to involuntary servitude? Why not include the sins of segregation and discrimination? Unlike slavery, those are sins that loads of Virginians, alive and well today, had something to do with.

kingc@washpost.com

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