Panel calls for Virginia to purge dozens of old racist laws

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Ralph Northam, Pam Northam

FILE – In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a press conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. A commission Northam tasked with researching racist laws from the state’s past recommended Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, that dozens be repealed in order to purge the state’s books of discriminatory language. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The laws are still on the books in Virginia: Blacks and whites must sit in separate rail cars. They cannot use the same playgrounds, schools or mental hospitals. They can’t marry each other either.

The measures have not been enforced for decades, but they remain in the state’s official legal record. A state commission on Thursday recommended that dozens of such discriminatory statutes finally be repealed, in some cases more than a century after they were adopted.

Although “some of these acts were rendered null and void by an amended Virginia Constitution, by landmark civil rights cases or legislation, it’s clear that they are vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past that still sit on the books. … We should not afford them the distinction of that official status,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson, who led the panel of attorneys, judges, scholars and community leaders assigned to comb through the laws.

The commission, which issued an interim report Thursday and will continue its work, said the laws should be repealed in the legislative session that begins in January. Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to work with fellow Democrats who will control the General Assembly to do so.

Northam announced the formation of the commission in June, several months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo of someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe on his medical school yearbook page. He initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized, then reversed course the next day, saying he was not in it. Investigators with a law firm said they could not conclusively establish the identities of either person.

The controversy nearly forced him from office. But Northam resisted widespread calls to resign and pledged to focus the remainder of his term on addressing Virginia’s long history of racism and racial inequities.

“I want Virginians to know our full and true story. And I also want us to build a Virginia where everyone feels welcome,” he said Thursday in remarks that did not directly address the scandal. “Language that discriminates, whether or not that language still has the force of law, is part of our past, not our future.”

Del. Lamont Bagby, who heads the legislative black caucus, said the group appreciated the commission’s work. Caucus members had been trying to do the same thing for decades in a piecemeal fashion with legislation, he said.

“I also want to make sure it’s clear: A lot of people think this is something the black caucus took to the governor. No, the governor brought it to the black caucus,” Bagby said, to applause from the audience.

Many of the acts flagged for repeal were intended to enforce the state’s strategy of “massive resistance” to federally mandated school integration. One law was called “an act to provide that no child shall be required to attend integrated schools.” Another authorized the closure of public schools in the face of federal intervention to enforce desegregation.

Public playgrounds were also segregated. The town of Smithfield was authorized by law to make an annual appropriation to an all-white military company. A law enacted in 1920 required that real estate assessments include the race of property owners.

Four of the measures flagged for repeal dealt with Virginia’s segregated mental health institutions, called “colonies for the feeble-minded” or “hospitals for the insane,” the report noted.

The commission also reviewed laws regarding Confederate statues and other issues related to the Confederacy, but declined to make any specific recommendations about them, citing pending litigation and lawmakers’ efforts to deal with those questions during the upcoming session.

A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville two years ago renewed the debate over whether Confederate monuments should remain in public spaces. Memorials to war veterans are currently protected by state law.

The commission planned to continue its “careful and deliberate review” and would “await orderly judicial or legislative actions,” the report said.

Given the vast scope of the commission’s work, it began by examining only the state’s Acts of Assembly — the complete written legislative record of the General Assembly — from 1900 to 1960.

Within that period, the report said, the panel focused on three periods: 1900 to 1910, when many states were taking action to undo progress made during Reconstruction; 1918 through the 1920s, marking the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and the mid- to late 1950s, when Southern states fought school desegregation following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

Undergraduates, law students and staff from the governor’s office assisted with the research, which was made more difficult because many of the records exist only on paper, the report said.

The governor and commission members said the work would continue. The panel will next work to identify laws that appear race-neutral or non-discriminatory but “have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequity,” according to a news release from Northam’s office.

“We’re not going to reverse 400 years of history with one interim report, but what a great beginning this is,” Northam said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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