The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He helped rewrite Virginia’s constitution to guarantee Black voting rights — ‘a blessing’ 50 years ago

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, talks with University of Virginia professor A.E. Dick Howard as they view the 1869 and 1776 Virginia constitutions at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — A.E. Dick Howard was a confident young college professor, only 34, when he got the assignment of a lifetime: Oversee the writing of a new constitution for Virginia.

Hope was hard to come by that year — 1968 — with cities in upheaval over the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But Howard’s task amounted to a stroke against the darkest forces of society.

The document he helped create repudiated a Virginia constitution adopted in 1902 with the stated purpose of disenfranchising Black people, which it did with bureaucratic efficiency for decades. The new constitution went into effect on July 1, 1971, finally bringing the modern era to the state where American slavery originated.

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And so Thursday marks 50 years since African Americans had their basic rights recognized and safeguarded in Virginia. Though slavery ended with the Civil War, it wasn’t until the year that “All in the Family” ruled TV and Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” topped the radio charts that the votes of Black women and men were ensured under the Virginia Constitution.

“Imagine the blessing — and it was a blessing — to have the chance to play the role I did,” said Howard, 87, who still teaches at the University of Virginia and has consulted on constitutions around the world.

Howard met Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at the Library of Virginia in Richmond on Tuesday for a rare public look at four of the seven constitutions that have shaped the state’s history. In recognition of the anniversary, the documents are on display until Thursday evening in the library’s lobby.

The exhibit is only available for a short time because of the need to protect the artifacts, which include the original handwritten constitution adopted by revolutionaries in June 1776; the Reconstruction constitution of 1869; the Jim Crow document of 1902; and the 1971 constitution that’s still in effect.

Those documents and the three others that preceded the end of the Civil War tell a sobering tale — still not widely known — of how history can loop back on itself and destroy the progress of an earlier age.

“My exposure to that history … was inadequate for sure and possibly inaccurate, as well,” Northam said in an interview. He was in the fifth grade on Virginia’s Eastern Shore when the new constitution went into effect and stayed in public schools as they desegregated under the new law.

Northam nearly resigned from office in 2019 when a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page, and though he has disavowed the photo, he acknowledged darkening his face for a dance contest that same year. He has blamed a faulty understanding of racial history for his insensitive behavior.

A cascade of scandals rocked the Democratic Party in Virginia in 2019 after a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. (Video: Lee Powell, Patrick Martin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

“Obviously I’ve learned more about it in just the past couple of years,” he said. “It was all around me, but the eyes can’t see, sometimes, what the brain doesn’t know.”

Now Northam sees that history in efforts around the country to limit access to voting. He invoked the connection earlier this week when he stood in front of a civil rights memorial on Capitol Square to ceremonially sign a handful of bills that expand voting access.

“It is a powerful, powerful memorial that we cannot take civil rights — and especially voting rights — for granted,” Northam said at the bill-signing. “We’re seeing too many other states moving away from those principles.” If that injects politics into the interpretation of history, Howard said that fits right in with his own study of constitutions.

“A state constitution is really a mirror of the aspirations of a people,” he said. Unlike the federal document, which has only been modified a handful of times, state constitutions change often to “more nearly reflect the … political, social and economic debates of any particular age,” he said.

Howard read all of Virginia’s past constitutions when he took on the task of drafting a new one in 1968.

The first one was the most exciting, a 1776 landmark that “opened the door to the modern age of constitutions,” he said. Seeing the original version this week for the first time — scrawled on unlined paper, smudged and brown with age — caused Howard to clutch his hand to his chest.

“I mean to tell you, this is like seeing the Holy Grail,” he said, ranking it “among the 10 most important constitutional documents in Western history.”

Meeting in Williamsburg, those delegates first passed a declaration of rights and then a frame of government. The declaration, mostly penned by George Mason, anticipated the language of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and remains embedded in today’s state constitution.

The frame of government created a state Senate and empowered the General Assembly to elect the governor (who served only a single year) and judges. To keep a check on the chief executive, the governor couldn’t act without consulting a 12-member council, chosen by the General Assembly. And, of course, only White men who owned significant property could vote.

In 1830, a new constitution slightly expanded the electorate to all White men who paid taxes. It reapportioned districts to ensure that enslavers concentrated in the eastern part of the state would hold a guaranteed majority in the General Assembly. Another revision in 1851 extended the vote to all White men and opened up a wide slate of offices, including governor, to popular election. But it further tightened protections for enslavers, limiting taxes on enslaved people and prohibiting manumission.

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During the Civil War, parts of the state that were occupied by federal troops or remained loyal to the Union passed a constitution in Alexandria in 1864 that abolished slavery. But the broadest change came during Reconstruction, when a group of White and Black delegates assembled a constitution that extended the vote to all men (women had to wait until 1920), guaranteed free public education to all children and declared that all citizens “possess equal civil and political rights and public privileges.”

That ushered in a brief window in which Black men served in the General Assembly and Congress. A flourishing Black economy began to take root.

Then the White power structure fought back. In the era of Jim Crow and the Lost Cause, as Confederate statues sprouted around the state, Virginia officials launched a campaign for a new constitution.

A 1901 broadside advertising the effort promised to “forever remove the negro as a factor in our political affairs and give to the white people of this Commonwealth the conduct and control of the destinies which they have the right to shape and determine.”

The president of the constitutional convention pledged to “eliminate the ignorant and worthless negro as a factor from the politics of this state.”

Adopted in 1902 — and set down in beautiful, flowing handwriting on display at the state library — the constitution imposed a poll tax to keep poor Black residents from voting. If that didn’t work, the document empowered local registrars to test prospective voters by choosing a section of the constitution and having the voter explain it. It was up to each registrar to decide whether the explanation passed muster.

The results speak for themselves: Before the constitution was adopted, Black men made up about half of Virginia’s electorate. In the elections of 1904, their portion was about 5 percent. Poor White residents were disenfranchised, too, Howard said.

That was the status quo until the pressures of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the turmoil of that era finally pushed Virginia leaders to seek a new constitution.

Gov. Mills Godwin established a commission in 1968 that included future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and Oliver Hill, who was Black and one of the most admired civil rights lawyers of the 20th century. It was up to Howard to craft their ideas into a workable document.

Once it was submitted to the General Assembly in 1969, Howard then led a campaign to attract public support. He traveled around the state to dispel fears and myths about it, including one rumor that it had been written by outsiders.

“And this was before the age of social media,” he said. “Can you imagine the misinformation and disinformation that would be going around today?”

He vividly remembers taking his case to the Crusade for Voters, a Black civil rights group in Richmond.

As he waited in the hallway for the group’s leaders to reach consensus, Howard was conscious of the historic reversal — a White man pleading for support from a council of Black leaders. They endorsed it. And the constitution won statewide approval by a large margin.

Northam peppered him with questions Tuesday and said it was stunning to meet someone directly linked to what seems like it should be long-ago history. “Are there things that you think — hindsight being 20-20 — you would have [done differently]?” the governor asked.

Howard had a list: A better definition of “compact and contiguous” political districts. Creating a citizen panel to handle redistricting. Abolishing Dillon’s Rule, a principle that gives the state great power over localities. An alternative to letting the General Assembly elect judges. Perhaps allowing governors to run for a second, consecutive term. But his biggest regret, he said, is the provision permanently depriving convicted felons of their voting rights.

Howard said those rights should be automatically restored as soon as someone convicted of a felony completes their prison term. A constitutional amendment to do just that passed the General Assembly this year and will be up for a second vote next year. On balance, though, Howard said he’s proud of how the document has endured — and especially of the wrongs that it set right.

“I was born and raised in Richmond. I went to segregated schools. I remember Massive Resistance. I was taught about the Lost Cause. I grew up in all that, then I put that behind me,” he said.

Working on the new constitution “felt like expiation,” he said. “Emotionally, the distance I traveled from childhood days in Richmond to working as the executive director was a long road and satisfying. There are times that you feel you’re in sync with history, and for at least that period of time, I was on the right side of history.”

On Tuesday, Northam’s secretary of administration, Grindly Johnson, who is Black, hovered around the periphery as governor and professor moved from document to document. Finally she approached Howard.

“I want to say thank you,” she said, reaching out to him and then taking a step back. “We’ve still got a long way to go. But thank you.”

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