From poll taxes to segregated train cars, Virginia panel recommends repealing 98 Jim Crow-era laws

By: - December 5, 2019 12:26 pm

The cover page of a 1924 bill that banned interracial marriage. — one of 98 state laws still on the books that a commission appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam targeted for removal. (Office of the Governor)

Gov. Ralph Northam asked state lawmakers Thursday to repeal 98 racist, Jim Crow-era laws that are still on the books in Virginia — legislation that charted the state’s policy of Massive Resistance to school desegregation, mandated segregated public transportation and blocked minorities from voting.

The legislation was identified by a commission Northam appointed in June as part of his efforts to make amends after a racist photo was found on his medical school yearbook page. The group formally presented their recommendations in a report released Thursday.

“It’s important to get this out of the code,” the governor said. “It’s also important to enlighten Virginia of our past so we don’t go back there.”

The commission members said in their report that most of the pieces of legislation they identified are outdated and have been invalidated by court rulings, but that they believe “such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.”

The laws targeted for repeal address many key areas of public life, including voting (“Implementation of the State poll-tax”), housing (“An act to provide designation of segregation districts for residence)”, health (“The Board shall provide separate sanatoria for white people and colored people”) and public transportation (“Require a separation of white and colored passengers on cars operated by electricity”).

Nearly half of the recommendations address education, an area where Virginia took an especially forceful stand against civil rights when it refused to comply with a Supreme Court ruling mandated the desegregation of public schools and instead adopted its posture of Massive Resistance.

The state legislative framework that advanced that policy is still on the books – laws that allowed the closure of public schools rather than integration, provided state-funded tuition for students to attend the white-only private academies set up in their place and blocked local governments that wanted to integrate their school systems from doing so.

Gov. Ralph Northam asked lawmakers to repeal 98 pieces of Jim Crow-era legislation identified by a commission he appointed this summer. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he appreciated Northam’s work, which was inspired by legislation backed by the black caucus earlier this year to remove Jim Crow-era wage laws that allowed businesses to pay workers in jobs predominantly held by African Americans less than minimum wage.

“A lot of people thought this was something the Black Caucus took to the governor,” Bagby said. “No, the governor took it to the Black Caucus. Virginia has been working on this for decades now, and we were sort of trying to piecemeal it with legislation. … So I just want to say thank you to all of you for leading the way in this effort.”

The panel Northam appointed, which was led by Cynthia Hudson, the chief deputy Attorney General of Virginia, said it doesn’t consider its work complete.

They decided not to make recommendations on legislation addressing Confederate pensions and memorials, writing that the “Commission understands the sensitive nature of this topic both in terms of its complexity and its historical legacy, and seeks to be appropriately mindful of the history of this era while also acknowledging the state’s role in funding Confederate memorials, monuments, and public benefits.”

They note that lawmakers have already said they plan to put forward legislation that would end the state’s prohibition on removing Confederate memorials.

The commission also suggested that its charge be expanded to include not just explicitly discriminatory laws, but “but also those that are either race-neutral descendants of explicitly racist legislative ancestors, or that, in practice, have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequities.”

“Comparing the rates of home ownership, educational achievement, negative health outcomes, criminal justice involvement, and professional and financial stability for nonwhite and white Virginians makes it painfully clear that Virginia is a long way from true racial equity,” they wrote.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.