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Virginia panel says racist laws should be purged

These racist laws include measures that helped enforce federally mandated school integration, a poll tax intended to keep black Virginians from voting, and mandated racially segregated transportation.
As Gov. Ralph Northam, left, looks on, Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson, left, addresses a gathering as she presented the report from The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law in Richmond, Va. on Dec. 5, 2019.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

RICHMOND, Va. — A commission Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tasked with researching racist laws from the state’s past recommended that dozens be repealed in order to purge the state’s books of discriminatory language.

While most of the pieces of legislation are outdated and “have no legal effect,” they are still enshrined in law, the nine-member commission of attorneys, judges, scholars and community leaders wrote in an interim report.

“The Commission believes that such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status,” said the report, which urged repeal of the laws in the legislative session that starts in January.

These racist laws include measures that helped enforce the state’s strategy of “Massive Resistance” to federally mandated school integration, instituted a poll tax intended to keep black Virginians from voting, mandated racially segregated transportation and prohibited interracial marriage.

Northam, a Democrat, announced the formation of the commission in June during a ceremonial signing of a bill repealing Jim Crow-era minimum wage exemptions for jobs traditionally held by African Americans, such as ushers and doormen. The announcement came several months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo of someone in blackface and someone in KKK robes on his medical school yearbook page, nearly forcing him from office.

Northam resisted widespread calls to resign and pledged to focus the remainder of his term on addressing Virginia's long history of racism and racial inequities.

The commission also reviewed acts regarding Confederate statues and other issues related to the Confederacy, but declined to make any recommendations about those items, citing pending litigation and the efforts of lawmakers to deal with the issue during the upcoming legislative session.

A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville two years ago renewed the debate over whether Confederate monuments should remain in public spaces, but a law currently codified in state code protects memorials to war veterans.

“The Commission will continue its careful and deliberate review of the Acts concerning the Confederacy and will await orderly judicial or legislative actions,” the report said.

The group also noted that its work is not done, and that its recommendations for repeal are not comprehensive.

Given the scope of the record the commission was tasked with reviewing, it began by examining only the state’s Acts of Assembly — the complete written legislative record of the General Assembly — from 1900 to 1960.

Within that period, the report said the panel focused especially on three periods: 1900 to 1910, when many states were taking action to undo progress made during Reconstruction; 1918 through the 1920s, marking the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and the mid- and late-1950s, when Southern states fought school desegregation following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

Undergraduate and law school students and staff from the governor’s office assisted with research, which was made more difficult because the records of many of the Acts are only in paper form, the report said.

“There remain many volumes of the Acts that have not been reviewed, and assuredly, additional measures can be found by more complete review of those that have been studied for the first time,” the report said.