The Senate vote came one day before the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s declaration — made on Feb. 24, 1956 — that Virginia would oppose the integration of public schools required by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The state’s policy shuttered some schools for years.
On Tuesday, all but three of the Senate’s 18 Republicans joined Democrats to approve the legislation 36 to 3. There was stronger Republican opposition in the House, where the measure passed 63 to 34 last month.
“For me, the architect of Massive Resistance shouldn’t be celebrated, especially in public spaces,” Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones, who sponsored the bill, said in a written statement. “This is a win for Civil Rights in Virginia and a step in the right direction toward reconciliation and understanding our challenging history.”
While Richmond has spent much of the past year wrestling with towering symbols of racial oppression, scant attention was paid to the 10-foot bronze figure outside the state Capitol that depicts Byrd in a business suit, a copy of the federal budget in one hand.
All but one of the Confederate statues that defined Monument Avenue were carted away over the summer amid protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis police custody in May. Northam has ordered the removal of the lone remaining monument, to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, but two court challenges stand in the way.
In December, Northam had another Lee statue removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a House resolution to replace that with a tribute to Barbara Johns, who as a 16-year-old in 1951 led a walkout at her all-Black segregated high school in Farmville. Her protest became part of the Brown case decision.
As governor from 1926 to 1930, Byrd modernized state government and observed strict budget discipline. He was a prominent budget hawk in the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1933 to 1965. He died in 1966.
But Byrd was best known for engineering the state’s opposition to Brown. That included denying funding to integrated schools, authorizing the governor to close them and providing tuition grants to students attending segregated private academies. In 1958, the state seized and closed several schools in Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk to prevent their integration. Prince Edward County shuttered its schools for five years rather than admit Black students.
State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) argued on the floor that the tribute to Byrd should stay put. She noted that Byrd, a Winchester newspaper publisher and apple grower, created the state’s highway system and adhered to “pay-as-you-go” budgeting as governor.
Byrd’s segregationists policies were a “great stain on his career,” she said, “but he was a man of a certain time and a certain era.”
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) made a distinction between some of the nation’s flawed Founding Fathers and Byrd.
“Yes, Jefferson and Washington did have slaves, but that’s not what they’re known for. One led us to victory over the British, and the other was instrumental in organizing this country,” Saslaw said. He said Byrd, by contrast, was best known for denying an education to Virginians “for no other reason than their race.”
Byrd’s statue was created by sculptor William McVey and erected in 1976 with private funds. A bill calling for its removal surfaced last year, as newly empowered Democrats were poised to pass legislation giving localities the authority to remove war monuments on public property.
But the measure was a not a serious gesture. Del. Wendell S. Walker (R-Lynchburg), who opposed the removal of monuments to historic figures, meant it as a warning to Democrats, assuming they would resist losing a tribute to one of their own. As it turned out, Democrats liked the bill and offered to sign on as co-sponsors. Walker eventually withdrew it.