And in a direct challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), the rest of the Democratic Party as well as Republicans, the caucus said: “Those who have chosen to attend and remain silent are complicit in the atrocities that he incites.”
Northam is slated to begin day-long festivities at a 7:30 a.m. ceremony on the site of the original English colony at Jamestown Island, but his office said he never intended to be present for the 11 a.m. session featuring Trump. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) will also be present with Northam for that event.
Fairfax, the second African American to hold statewide office and a descendant of a slave, defended his decision to attend in a Web post last week. He said he aimed to “proudly show to all in attendance that no national leader can diminish Virginia’s continuing efforts to cast aside its racist past and move forward as a state built on the blended contributions of Native Americans, enslaved Africans, settlers from Europe, and later immigrants from across the globe.”
The black legislators hastily arranged alternative events in Richmond on Tuesday, including a wreath-laying at the State Capitol and a visit to the site of a notorious slave jail.
They complained that organizers of the Jamestown ceremonies planned a separate commemoration for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to the colony, which took place about a month after the initial meeting of the Colonial-era government but had as much impact on American society. That observation will take place next month at Fort Monroe.
The black legislators will focus Tuesday “on those individuals who fought for a more just, equitable, and inclusive democracy,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said via email. “The President’s words and actions demonstrate that he does not share or embody those ideals.”
Tuesday’s event comes after Trump unleashed a torrent of incendiary attacks against Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his majority-black congressional district, which includes Baltimore. Trump called it a “rat and rodent infested” place where “no human being would want to live.”
That came after Trump urged four women of color, all elected to Congress and three born in the United States, to “go back” to where they came from.
Trump’s appearance at Jamestown injects turmoil into an event that had been planned for years and that Virginia officials hoped would showcase their state’s rich role in American history.
Several Democrats said they were surprised by the sharp line drawn by the black caucus.
Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William), Virginia’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, said she would attend Trump’s speech and other festivities but planned to bring as her guest a black transgender woman who is a health-care advocate.
“Those of us who are going to Jamestown are sticking up for Virginia as well,” Roem said. “I love the idea that in Richmond there’s going to be their own counterevent. . . . It is also important that in Jamestown, we have our own narrative there about making Virginia a more inclusive commonwealth that is welcoming to all.”
Trump has long been unpopular in Virginia, the only Southern state not to vote for him in 2016. With all 140 seats in the state legislature on the ballot this fall, Virginia Democrats hope taking a stand against Trump will inspire voters to show up in November and help them make gains in the General Assembly. Republicans are nursing wafer-thin majorities — 20 to 19 in the Senate and 51 to 48 in the House, with a vacancy in each chamber.
But several lawmakers said the boycott transcends election-year politics.
“The reasons not to go continue to snowball,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the black caucus, said in an interview. “This is a clear illustration of why we have a black caucus. This is not about Democrats or Republicans.”
The boycott will deprive the event of one of the most powerful signs of change since the original General Assembly — the presence of black lawmakers. Of the 25 minority members of the House and Senate, 20 are in the black caucus.
The session being commemorated convened July 30, 1619, at a time when the Virginia colony was struggling to survive. Its corporate owners in England had empowered the colonists to pick two representatives from each of the 11 primary settlement areas.
Even then, there was conflict. Twenty-two burgesses gathered in the church at Jamestown Island, and two were kicked out immediately because they were from a plantation that had not acknowledged colonial authority. All were white men, of course.
The weather was so hot that one burgess died on the third day. Meeting with the governor, Sir George Yeardley, and his appointed Council of State, the burgesses passed laws against idleness, gaming, drunkenness and “excesse in apparell.” They forbade giving Indians “any English dog of quality,” set prices for tobacco, requested funds to start a college and settled a few disputes — including punishing a “lewde and trecherous” servant for wantonness with a widow by having him spend four days with his ears nailed to the pillory.
The assembly broke up after six days because of “extream heat.”
Minutes from the session were sent to England later in the year via a ship called the White Lion — the same ship that, in August, had delivered some of the first Africans brought to the colonies in servitude.
Those minutes are back in Jamestown for the first time in 400 years. Obtaining them on loan from British archives is one of the coups of American Evolution, created by the General Assembly in 2013 to oversee the anniversary events.
Written in looping ink on gray parchment, the record of the first General Assembly session anchors a display in the museum at Jamestown Settlement, the reconstructed colony and “living history” attraction just over a mile from the ruins of the real thing.
Tuesday’s events will begin at 7:30 a.m. when Northam leads a small ceremony at the ruins of a brick church on Jamestown Island. That ruin is atop the site of the original church and adjacent to the archaeological remains of the first fort at Jamestown, begun in 1607. The chief of Virginia’s Rappahannock tribe will give the invocation, while the chief of the Chickahominy tribe will give the benediction at other ceremonies later in the day — the only official roles for the native people who were also profoundly affected by historical events at Jamestown.
The British royal family was not sending a representative, event organizers said, though the former clerk of the British House of Commons will make remarks. Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown in 2007 to mark the 400th anniversary of its founding.
Trump’s role comes later in the morning, when the ceremonies move to the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum. There, in a massive white air-conditioned tent, members of the General Assembly will hold a commemorative session featuring remarks from its Republican leaders and a keynote address from Trump. Historian Jon Meacham, who has described Trump and Andrew Johnson as the country’s most racist presidents, will also address the lawmakers.
On the river nearby, protesters have pledged to gather to demonstrate against the president.
Organizers said the furor over Trump’s appearance fits with the flawed experiment in representation launched there four centuries ago. “It’s our democracy and where we are today,” said Kathy Spangler, executive director of American Evolution. “It encourages us all to look back, learn, understand and really have a healthy conversation about where we go from here.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.