During the 1997 session of the General Assembly, lawmakers openly acknowledged that they were embarrassed by the state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a minstrel tune sung (often in blackface) from the perspective of a former slave pining for plantation life and his old “massa.”
They had long ceased playing it at official functions and in previous sessions had labored over efforts to address the racist lyrics, including several failed proposals to swap references to “this old darkey’s heart” to “this old dreamer’s heart.”
But ultimately, they couldn’t bring themselves to drop the song altogether, opting to designate it in state code as the “song emeritus,” an honorary status it enjoys to this day.
“Of course, I didn’t like the fact that they kept it emeritus,” says Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a black lawmaker who co-sponsored the bill to retire it with Sen. Steve Newman, a white Republican from Lynchburg. “It was the only compromise that we had at the time.”
Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring’s admissions that they both wore blackface in the 1980s has led to unprecedented soul searching in Virginia, and, in Northam’s case, a pledge to spend the rest of his term on issues of equity.
They’re the kinds of discussions the state has been grappling with for decades with mixed results, up to and including this year, when the House and the Senate passed resolutions expressing “profound regret” for the history of lynching and racial terror that followed emancipation.
In the case of the state song, the conversation lasted nearly 30 years.
James A. Bland, a black minstrel performer, wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” in 1887. The tune was picked up by white singers like George Primrose, who sang it while performing in blackface.
The General Assembly adopted it as the state song in 1940 at the urging of the Lions’ Clubs of Virginia, whose chapters regularly put on minstrel shows featuring blackface performances.
According to news clips from the time, the only real debate centered around whether they could change the title to say “Virginia” instead of “Virginny.” (They decided to go with “Virginia” in the code, but opted against swapping the word “taters” for potatoes, noting that the song had been written in dialect “for a blackface minstrel show.”)
Future Gov. Doug Wilder, then the first black person to be elected to the state Senate since reconstruction, expressed his disgust with the song in his first floor speech in 1970. He said he had walked out of a legislative reception the night before when the gathering, including some of his Senate colleagues, began singing it.
“I should have hoped that my time in so rising could have been spent for much more a deserving and needed mutual cause, and really, by this time in our lives, there would be no necessity for what I have to say,” he said, according to news accounts.
A resolution he introduced a week later to drop the song never got a hearing. On-again off-again efforts to address the issue, including the proposal to change the song lyrics, never went anywhere until 1997.
The compromise came amid vocal opposition from groups like the Heritage Preservation Association, a group that fights to maintain Confederate flags on public property around the South. They took out full page newspaper ads that read “Help us fight political correctness and preserve our southern heritage,” according to coverage in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which was among state newspapers that carried the ad.
Lucas played a 1940 recording of the song when it came before a House of Delegates committee for a vote, according to the paper. “For those of us in Virginia, when our state song is played, many of us drop our heads. We don’t stand, or we take ourselves conveniently away from our table,” she said.
Lucas said this week she’d still like to see the song stripped from the code entirely. The emeritus designation, she notes, indicates the General Assembly wanted to allow the song to retain its title as an honor.
“Maybe there’s a time where we’ll come back and try to take it out again,” she said.
The legislature took up another symbolic resolution a decade later in 2007 when it passed a resolution expressing profound regret for slavery — something no other state at the time had done.
One lawmaker’s comments, then Del. Frank Hargrove, R-Hanover, made national news when he told The Daily Progress that slavery had ended 140 years ago and “our black citizens should get over it.” The comment drew swift denunciations from black lawmakers and the measure ultimately passed, though with softened language that struck language calling for the General Assembly to “atone,” which some lawmakers worried “could carry the implication of reparations.”
A resolution this year to “acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the commonwealth” made it through both chambers with little debate.
The one exception came in the Senate, where Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, objected to the measure on the grounds that he shouldn’t be asked to apologize for something he didn’t do.
“I never lynched anyone,” he said during a Feb. 1 committee meeting, hours before pages from Northam’s medical school yearbook first began circulating. “Innocent people out here who have never engaged in these kinds of crimes, we’re asking them to apologize for things that they didn’t do and the monsters that committed these crimes are the ones that should be apologizing.”
He said all the resolution would do is “keep driving a wedge deeper and deeper and deeper.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who co-sponsored the resolution with Del. Delores McQuinn, responded that the words “profound regret” had been carefully chosen.
“While you may not necessarily feel the need to apologize for something, you can and often do acknowledge that something happened and you regret it happened,” she said. “We cannot heal if we don’t talk about what happened and how it impacts the communities today.”
Carrico’s objections notwithstanding, McClellan said that before the blackface scandals threw the legislative session into chaos, she observed a much greater willingness among her colleagues to address the issue than past efforts have been met with.
“People need to understand the good, the bad and the ugly of what happened in this commonwealth,” she said. “And until they do, they won’t fully understand where we are today or where we’ll go tomorrow.”