The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law was created six months ago by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who was struggling to save his governorship after a racist photograph was unearthed from his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam survived near-universal calls for his resignation by refusing to step down and pledging he would devote the rest of his term helping the state reckon with race.
The report issued Thursday marked another step in Northam’s path to rehabilitation. The glossy report features a hefty section of explicitly racist bills and resolutions adopted by the General Assembly from 1900 to 1960.
And it was just a first step; the commission plans to push ahead with a broader examination of the current state code, viewed through the lens of racial equity.
“It has no force of law, but the ugly words are still there,” Northam said of the old laws, which he will push the General Assembly to repeal in the session that begins in January. “You might ask, ‘Governor, if those old laws aren’t in effect anymore, why does it matter if we take them out or leave them?’ And I would answer you because words matter, and so do actions.”
Northam spoke at a morning news conference where the report was released, held at a former downtown Richmond trolley depot that once had separate waiting rooms for “whites” and “coloreds.” Members of the commission attended along with Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and Elizabeth Johnson Rice, a local civil rights figure.
Bagby, whose caucus called for Northam’s ouster in February, gave the governor credit for scouring state law for racist language and intent. He said others have made “piecemeal” efforts before, one old law at a time.
“A lot of people think the Black Caucus took it to the governor,” he said. “No, the governor brought it to the Black Caucus.”
Rice was a member of the Richmond 34, a group of black Virginia Union University students arrested in 1960 for a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter at Thalhimers department store. She alone made reference to the governor’s blackface scandal in remarks, noting a letter of support she wrote to Northam during the uproar over the yearbook.
“We all make mistakes, yes we do,” she said. “But he was not proven guilty and in my heart, I could accept forgiveness because that’s the way I was brought up. And if I could forgive him and I was a member of the Richmond 34, I really wanted him to know how I felt.”
A pediatric neurologist and former state senator and lieutenant governor, Northam had just wrapped up a successful first year in office when a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page in February. It showed one person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and another in blackface.
He initially apologized for appearing in the picture. The next day he reversed course and said he was not in it, saying he’d made a false confession the night before because he felt he should accept responsibility for something on his yearbook page. At the same time, he admitted to putting shoe polish on his cheeks that same year to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Well-liked in both parties before the scandal, Northam resisted calls to step down and slowly found his footing again in Richmond. He was raising money and stumping for state legislative candidates by November, when his party won control of the state House and Senate. Those wins gave the Democrats consolidated control of state government for the first time in a generation.
Democrats will have the muscle to scrap the old laws even if Republicans do not want to go along, but Bagby said he expects little GOP resistance.
“We did have commitments from the other side of the aisle to work on this issue,” he said. “It’s not black or white, it’s not red, blue or purple. It is focused on what is right for the commonwealth.”
GOP House and Senate leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cynthia Hudson, Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general, is chairwoman of the commission. Presenting the report to Northam, she said that as an African American, she found the topic “resonates so deeply with me on both personal and professional levels.”
Most of the “outdated, unjust and plainly racist” laws were “null and void” given court rulings and federal civil rights legislation, she said. But there were some exceptions. One act passed in 1910 — highlighted on a poster-size board Thursday — requires clerks issuing marriage licenses to note the race of anyone seeking to be married. At the time, the state banned interracial marriage.
The Supreme Court struck down that ban more than 50 years ago, but the requirement that prospective brides and grooms be identified by race has lived on in state code.
In October, a federal judge struck down that requirement after three couples challenged it.
The nine-member commission had help combing through the laws from students at Virginia Commonwealth University and the law schools at the University of Richmond and the University of Virginia.
The report groups the laws by topic, illustrating how racism reached into so many areas of daily life — voting, education, health, transportation, housing and criminal justice.
“We know that in Virginia, our history is difficult and extremely complex,” Northam said. “And we know that discrimination, racism and black oppression marched on, even after slavery ended. In the form of Jim Crow laws, massive resistance [to school integration] and now among other things, mass incarceration.”
Most of the laws are defunct today, given Supreme Court rulings outlawing discrimination on the basis of race.
“Though most of these pieces of legislation are outdated and have no legal effect, they remain enshrined in law,” the commission’s report states. “The Commission believes that such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.”
In remarks to reporters afterward, Northam and Hudson stressed that the next phase of the commission’s work will be harder. They do not expect to find the expressly racist language and intent from generations ago, Hudson said, but they will look for measures that nevertheless disproportionately affect people of color.
“As we stand here today there are inequities in access to health care, inequities in access to a world-class education, inequities in access to the criminal justice system, to the voting booth,” Northam said. “You could go on and on. So we still have a lot of work to do.”