As you read this column the Virginia General Assembly will be nearing its adjournment sine die for the 400th year of its existence, having first met in the church on Jamestowne Island in 1619. During this commemorative year there will be many opportunities to learn more about Virginia and to reflect on how its history influences it to today even in the current legislative session and in what on another occasion was referred to as its “recent unpleasantries.”
That first session of what became known a century and a half later as the General Assembly was composed of a representative of the 22 plantations that had sprung up along the major rivers of the state as there were no local government, political boundaries, or transportation networks in existence. The representatives were all white males who were land owners. African Americans had to wait for the outcome of the Civil War and women the twentieth century before they became part of the electorate. While the right to vote has begrudgingly expanded over time there continues to be a resistance to making it easier to vote. In the current session there were proposals to allow people to vote early or vote absentee without an excuse and to make election day a holiday for the convenience of voters, but it does not appear that any will become law. Establishing a fair way to draw legislative boundaries has been hotly debated, but the decision to establish an independent redistricting commission will await the closing hours of the session.
Slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619 to work the tobacco fields that were the mainstay of the colony’s economy. They had none of the rights that Englishmen claimed and beginning in the 1640s were subjected to “slave codes” that defined them as property to be bought and sold with no access to learning to read and write or to move about freely. After the Civil War these restrictive laws became the Jim Crow laws that continued to limit the rights of black people who were kept in line by the Ku Klux Klan and by public lynchings. White supremacy reigned with black-face entertainment intended to degrade black people through crude humor. Happenings during this legislative session showed how little we have progressed on issues of human rights and respect, but there is hope. The reminder to the Governor of his racist past will make him an even more enlightened person who if he continues can provide important leadership to dismantling racism in the state. The incredible people of color who were elected to the House of Delegates in the last election bring strong voices to the need for greater equity and justice in the Commonwealth. Some limited reforms that will help establish equity and remove racism in the criminal justice system are on their way to passage.
Women first came to the Virginia colony in 1619. While rights of women have expanded slowly over the centuries, having Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is still in doubt. May the lessons of this historic legislative session move us forward in future years.
To check on the fate of specific bills, go to http://lis.virginia.gov.