The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia is the birthplace of American slavery and segregation — and it still can’t escape that legacy

Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, the commonwealth reckons with the consequences of the system it created.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook is displayed. At right, a photo shows a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood next to photos of the governor. (Eastern Virginia Medical School/AP) (AP)

At the end of August 1619, a British privateer, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort, Va., with cargo it had seized in a battle with a Portuguese slave ship. The take wasn’t much, “not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes,” tobacco planter John Rolfe wrote.

But the ship needed “victuals.” The Virginia colony’s governor had them. And a deal was struck: the White Lion’s human merchandise for food, “at the best and easiest rates.”

Thus arrived in Virginia the first documented Africans on the mainland of English North America, according to historian James Horn.

Over the next 400 years, Virginia was to be the nursery and battleground of slavery, a land of segregation, lynchings and white supremacy, and home to unbending racial oppression and the myth of the Confederate “lost cause.”

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in recent days mulled resigning over a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook, and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said he dressed in blackface during college, the modern state continues to struggle with its past as a champion of slavery and an opponent of equality.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) resisted calls to resign after his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing two people in blackface and KKK robe came to light. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Virginia Attorney General Herring says he wore blackface in college

Although slavery and then racism were eventually widespread across what became the United States, it was in Virginia where the so-called peculiar institution was born, where it was codified in law, and where the most famous slave-led rebellion in America, the Nat Turner uprising of 1831, occurred.

There, too, reverence for slavery’s defenders and monuments to its military heroes still haunt public spaces and dialogue, and memorialize a time when the country was ripped in two.

In 1860, more slaves lived in Virginia — 490,000 — than in any other state in the Union, according to census data. The year before, in what was then Harpers Ferry, Va., the white abolitionist, John Brown, headed the doomed slave insurrection that helped spark the Civil War.

And then in a bloody swath of Northern Virginia, roughly between Washington and Richmond, the final struggle that destroyed slavery was fought during the Civil War.

Here are some of slavery’s way points in Virginia history.

- 1619: The first enslaved Africans arrive in Virginia, launching the institution of slavery in what would become the United States. The Virginia slave population grew slowly at first. Thirty-two were recorded there in 1620, according to Horn. There were 300 by 1648, 3,000 by 1680, and 16,000 by 1700, according to Colonial Williamsburg.

- 1705: The Virginia General Assembly passes a law that made it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, for a free white person to marry a black person — to prevent “that abominable mixture and spurious issue.” The law went on to state that if a slave happened to be killed while being punished, no crime would be attached, and the murder would be viewed “as if such incident had never happened.”

- 1775: The enslaved population of Virginia reaches 210,000.

- 1776: The Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men are created equal,” is co-authored by Virginia slave holder and future president, Thomas Jefferson, who, when he wrote it, owned about 200 slaves.

- 1789: The nation inaugurates its first president, Virginian and slave holder George Washington, who at his death a decade later had about 300 slaves on his estate at Mount Vernon.

As Nat Turner led a bloody slave rebellion, he carried his Bible

- 1831: Enslaved field hand and minister Nat Turner launches the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history, in Southampton County, Va. Scores of whites were killed, and over 100 blacks were slain in retaliation. Some blacks were beheaded and had their heads put on roadside stakes as a gruesome warning. Turner was captured and hanged on Nov. 11, 1831, in a town once known as Jerusalem, Va.

- 1859: The militant white abolitionist John Brown tries to spark an insurrection of slaves in Harpers Ferry, now in West Virginia, the site of a federal armory in Virginia. The uprising fails. Few slaves rally to his cause. Brown is captured by forces led by Virginian and U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate general. As he went to the gallows, Brown left a note stating, “I ... am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

- 1861 to 1865: When Richmond becomes the capital of the Confederacy, some of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War are fought across the landscape of Northern Virginia, with the ebb and flow of the war devastating the countryside and its inhabitants.

- 1877 to 1950: An estimated 76 lynchings of African Americans take place in Virginia. This is far fewer than the 500-plus in both Georgia and Mississippi, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, but equally as brutal. In September 1893, a mob in Roanoke lynched a man named Thomas Smith. The next day, as a crowd gathered around his hanging body, a photographer snapped a picture. Copies were sold as souvenirs.

- 1883: After the black majority of Danville, Va., helped elect moderate whites and African Americans to political offices in May, rioting broke out in November on election eve, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. Four black men were killed, four were wounded, and blacks resigned from their offices.

-1912: Walter Ashby Plecker becomes head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics and for the next 30 years worked to keep the races separate. His efforts led the Virginia legislature to pass the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a law that again criminalized interracial marriage. The law was the “perfect expression of the white ideal,” he said, and argued that anyone with one drop of “Negro” blood could not be classified as white.

- 1956: Segregationist Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia heads what comes to be called the “Massive Resistance” movement to block court-ordered integration of Virginia’s public schools. Across the state, schools shut down rather than integrate and instead set up private schools for whites.

- 1959: Virginia’s Prince Edward County closes its school system rather than integrate. The county’s schools remained closed until forced by the Supreme Court to reopen in 1964. But many students had already been denied education for five years, and many never recovered from the loss.

- 1963: Danville is again the site of racial turbulence, as civil rights activists march and demonstrate and authorities respond with fire hoses, clubs and arrests. Three demonstrators are indicted for “conspiring to incite the colored population … to acts of violence and war against the white population” — a law enacted after Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid in 1859.

- 1967: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down laws banning interracial marriage, in a landmark case brought by Richard and Mildred Loving of Caroline County. He was white. She was of African American and Native American descent. They had married in Washington in 1958 but had been arrested on their return to Virginia and forced to leave the state.

- 2017: In Charlottesville that August, white supremacists bearing Confederate flags, torches and Nazi banners spark rioting in which neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. rams his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather D. Heyer and injuring 35 others.

- 2018: Fields is convicted of first-degree murder in December and sentenced to life in prison.

Read more:

Family farm pays homage near site where slavery came to Virginia

Sacred ground, now reclaimed: A Charlottesville story

How a long-dead white supremacist still threatens the future of Virginia’s Indian tribes

How freed slaves helped shape Virginia after the Civil War