To the suing couples, the marriage license requirement was a throwback to an ugly time in history, a vestige of the Old Dominion’s racist past. And once they pointed it out, the state moved quickly to change it: The Division of Vital Records revised the marriage form this past Friday
. The clash was a perfect example of where the commonwealth now finds itself:
in a state of flux. But Virginia is moving in a positive direction, and one would hope that the home of the first colony remains a bellwether in this as well.
A confession: I am from Virginia. In elementary school, we were reminded with pride that ours was the most historic state: the first permanent English settlement in North America (Jamestown!), Mother of Presidents (eight in all
, more than any other state), the home of Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Monroe. Of course, it was also full of slaves, and my hometown, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
But today, Virginia is a solidly purple state. Charlottesville, home of Mr. Jefferson’s slave-built university, is now a site of resistance against white supremacy. And in other places, too, the state’s racially violent past is pushing hard up against a new future. Fingers crossed, the future might be winning.
Virginia Theological Seminary, approaching its 200th birthday, has created a $1.7 million reparations fund for the descendants of the slaves who built it, and to elevate the voices of black alumni and clergy. “We are deeply conscious of our past,” the Rev. Ian S. Markham, the seminary’s president, said in a statement. “Part of our past is explicit racism. . . So we apologize, so we commit to a different future; but we need to do more.”
The seminary is moving from a racist history into something new.
Even the governor exemplifies both the state’s racial tensions and its potential for change. Last February, Ralph Northam (D) was caught up in a scandal that nearly resulted in his resignation. Photographs from his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced showing one man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. Supporters unhelpfully pointed out that blackface was common at the time, and Northam himself — in mid-apology — pointed out that he had also dressed as Michael Jackson in a dance contest, and, well . . . it’s not clear what that signified, but who could blame him?
But today, chagrined by his experience, he seems to be making good on his promise to fight for racial equality and improve the state’s understanding of black history. And Virginia voters seem to have taken him at his word — especially black ones, it appears: Polling shows that minority Virginians are more likely to approve of his performance today than white ones.
Some voters, at least, are looking forward, not back.
So what gives, Sweet Virginia? Maybe it’s just something in the Tidewater, sweeping through the Piedmont and over the Blue Ridge. Maybe it’s demographic: The state is becoming more diverse, and its cities and urban centers are growing fastest. Young people are pushing for change: The marriage license lawsuit was brought by newly engaged millennials, and students protested
the white nationalists at U-Va. Just after blackface-gate, Northam was forced to cancel an appearance at Richmond’s historically black Virginia Union University, but now he’s welcomed by students and faculty alike. Just two weeks ago
he was spotted at VUU, sitting in on a panel about the role of historically black colleges and universities.
Virginia may be weighed down by its history of racism and conflict, just like the rest of us. But the tide is moving in a new direction. One hopes the rest of the country will follow.