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Segregationist Laws Will Soon Be Tossed Out of Virginia Code For Good

Woman with books
Librarian Rebecca Schneider in the government documents room (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

This year, the General Assembly will repeal more than a dozen 20th century policies that enforced racial segregation in the state and helped perpetuate discrimination in housing, education, voting and other areas of public life.

Governor Ralph Northam signed an executive order last summer creating a commission to identify these laws and remove them from the Virginia Code. He did this four months after a scandal involving racist photos in his old medical school yearbook -- that nearly ended his career.

The report that the Governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law released in December revealed 98 incidents of racially discriminatory language in the law, dating back to 1901. 

At the Library of Virginia in Richmond, the public can actually pick up and examine the old books that show every law the General Assembly has passed throughout the years.  

Senior Reference Librarian Rebecca Schneider enters the government documents room where there are rows of books that say Acts of Assembly. 

“Once something becomes law, especially historically before we had the internet, in order to make these things available to people, they were published every year in the Acts of Assembly,” Schneider said. 

Schneider combs through the gritty and delicate pages to find one of the laws that General Assembly members are working to repeal this year. It involves funding for busing white students to private schools in the late 1950’s.

“And so realizing that the public schools were going to be integrated, that’s when the Virginia state legislature decides, hey we need to throw money at all of these white private schools.”

This is only a sample of the racism that was codified in Virginia law. There was also the Racial Integrity Act, which banned interracial marriage. And a law that required separate accommodations for white and black passengers on modes of transit. Many were later ruled unconstitutional, but they remain on the books, quite literally. 

This is all sobering for Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico). 

“For an individual like myself,” Bagby said, “who knows how hard it is to get a piece of legislation through the general assembly and signed by the governor or just to get a piece of legislation through one body.”

Bagby, who’s the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, noted someone actually fought hard to get these laws through. 

“They not only crafted them, but they actually championed them in a fashion where they can go back to their constituency and say, ‘Hey look at what I did for you? Look, I have promoted and put into place legislation unfairly hold back a race of people,” Bagby said. 

Some have questioned the purpose of repealing these laws. Even members of the commission, during a meeting in November, asked what it would mean beyond a symbolic gesture. But Bagby and others in the Black Caucus say it’s important. 

Governor Ralph Northam formed the group, four months after the yearbook scandal. 

At the time, Bagby was one of the voices calling for Northam to step down.  

"[Northam] has responded to our demands, and met those demands with items I think that have gone above and beyond what we had requested,” Bagby said. 

Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) said while the effort is symbolic, the impacts are far-reaching. She introduced a bill to repeal a 1903 Act of Assembly that authorized the state poll tax, which was used to suppress the black vote. 

“Even up til, you know, the fight about photo ID,” Price said. “That is still a financial impact on a voter, prior to them being able to vote. And some of us see that as a branch of the poll tax.”

Price said she’s looking forward to more work from the commission. 

“You know it’s important and to go back into obsolete areas, but I hope some of those amazing minds on that commission, will also take a look at the current code that we’re operating under and see where are some intended or unintended race-based impacts,” Price said. 

The chair of the Governor’s Commission said the group will continue mining Virginia law books for racist policies.  

Every bill introduced this year to repeal old Acts of Assembly has passed unanimously. When they’re signed by the governor, they’ll be removed from the Code of Virginia

But, there will always be a physical reminder of those past mistakes in the Library of Virginia. 

Librarian Rebecca Schneider said the Acts of Assembly and the old code, will stay on the shelves for all to see.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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