Holidays honoring Lee, Jackson, were always a slap in the face for black people

January 28, 2020 12:02 am

Red paint covers the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 4, 2018)

These are the circumstances black Virginians faced in 1890, the year the General Assembly established the forerunner of Lee-Jackson Day to honor the two Confederate generals from the Civil War:

Seven black people had been lynched in the commonwealth just the year before, according to the book “100 Years of Lynchings,” by Ralph Ginzburg. The victims were often accused of assaulting white women. Vigilantes usually seized them from jails, hung them from trees and riddled their bodies with bullets.

Three black men were lynched in 1890; the body of a man slain in Russell County was found with 36 bullet holes.

Prosecutions were rare.

Political gains that black people in Richmond had made post-war began to fade. This became more pronounced after 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from Southern states, thus ending Reconstruction.

Black businesses couldn’t operate in certain districts around the state, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, told me. Officials during that period, spiteful to their core, sought to decrease public funding for facilities like black cemeteries, too.

Memorializing Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson with a state holiday, then, was a figurative slap in the face to every black man and woman struggling to be equal in Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. African Americans strove to do so under the palpable threat of violence.

So spare me any complaints – or tears – about the current push in the Assembly to scrap the holiday for the generals who waged war against the Union.

The state Senate just voted 22-18 to approve SB601, which replaces Lee-Jackson Day with a new state holiday on Election Day in November. It was nearly a party line vote, with only one Republican joining all the chamber’s Democrats in supporting the proposal.

 (In case you were wondering, Election Day was a state holiday until 1989.)

 The current bill still has to pass the House of Delegates before it would go to Gov. Ralph Northam.

 I’m sure people intoxicated with the Lost Cause are outraged. They probably include the 100 or so sympathizers who took part in the annual Lee-Jackson Day in Lexington this month.

Yet it’s important to understand the context in which state legislators initially passed the measure more than a century ago. This wasn’t a benign decision; not hardly.

Conditions for African Americans were becoming more brutal, both economically and socially. Jim Crow laws were on the rise. The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 was another cruel blow, saying legal racial segregation didn’t violate the Constitution.

All of this sent an unmistakable message to black people in Virginia, and around the South: You don’t count. Slavery is over, but forced peonage and violence against you will continue. Don’t look to the courts for relief. If you protest, you could end up dead – with no repercussions for the murderers.

When the state later agreed to honor Martin Luther King, who fought for civil rights and human dignity, it decided to lump the slain leader’s holiday in with the secessionist military men. Talk about a jarring juxtaposition.

The state, fortunately, split the observances in 2000.

If groups and individuals want to continue honoring Lee and Jackson, they can — just without the imprimatur of the state deeming it a holiday. It’s a designation that state leaders should’ve halted ages ago.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]