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Remembering Race in Virginia

Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861. English artist Eyre Crowe observed this scene while on a trip through the South. Image Courtesy of Slavery Images.

On July 30, 2019, exactly four hundred years after the inaugural meeting of the Virginia General Assembly, President Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to address it in joint session. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus boycotted the event. Caucus members denounced Trump’s racism and xenophobia, as most recently manifest in his demand that U.S. congresswomen of color “go back to where they came from.” While several hundred people protested outside the venue, Trump extolled the 400th “anniversary” of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown.

Trump’s remarks about the “grave oppression” of African Americans offers an opportunity to reflect somberly on the aftereffects of 246 years of racial slavery and nearly 100 years of Jim Crow. This year, many Americans are commemorating the beginning of American democracy in Jamestown in 1619, but this origin story obscures another history. We should dedicate this year instead to remembrance of the “20 and odd Negroes” imported to the colony and to the long course of slavery and segregation that followed their arrival.

Virginia is central to this history in surprising ways. In the 1660s, the Virginia General Assembly enacted a series of laws to codify racial slavery and preserve its heritability.[1] By the end of the century, the colony had emerged as the largest slave society in English North America.[2] One hundred years later, the Commonwealth of Virginia was home to 40 percent of all enslaved persons in the new United States. Paradoxically, Virginia slaveholders Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison advocated eloquently for the foundational ideals of equality and liberty. When in 1803, President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory, doubling the size of the United States, he declared the west an “Empire for Liberty.” In the years that followed, Virginia exported hundreds of thousands of enslaved blacks to Louisiana, and the new territory became an empire of slavery. By 1860, the U.S., with four million enslaved blacks, constituted the largest slave society in world history.

Over the next hundred and fifty years, Virginia continued to play a key role in racial segregation. During the Civil War, Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. After the war, across a century of Jim Crow, Virginia erected more Confederate monuments than any other state. It also became the epicenter of the junk racial science known as eugenics. As president, the Virginian Woodrow Wilson resegregated the federal government and screened Birth of a Nation, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, in the White House. During the civil rights movement, Virginia became a leading site of “massive resistance” to desegregation. Some public schools closed for two years rather than comply with the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, as well as other states’ bans on interracial marriage. This landmark ruling ended the decade-long nightmare of interracial spouses like Richard and Mildred Loving, whom Virginia authorities arrested in 1958, exiled from the state, and arrested again after they surreptitiously returned to Virginia to live closer to family.

Just two years ago, white supremacists invaded Charlottesville and rioted, resulting in the murder of Heather Heyer. President Trump proclaimed that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Last February, Virginians endured the spectacle of their governor, Ralph Northam, admitting that he appeared in a photograph, published in his medical school yearbook, featuring two individuals costumed in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes.

Trump’s celebration of “four hundred years of glorious American democracy” at the Jamestown event belies his disdain for democratic institutions but also, more broadly, the history of the United States. American democracy is in fact far younger and more fragile than Trump imagines. The model of governance that prevailed in early Jamestown was limited, hierarchical, and exclusionary. Over the course of four centuries, the descendants of enslaved people have fought to make it more inclusive, expansive, and egalitarian. Their efforts culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enabled a majority of black people to vote in the United States for the first time. Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, threatens their achievement. As Carol Anderson demonstrates in her recent book, One Person, No Vote, intensifying partisan efforts to suppress black votes—by gerrymandering, closing polling stations, purging voter rolls, and a variety of other means—are antithetical to our goal of inclusive participatory democracy.[3]

As we remember and honor the enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown in 1619, we must reflect on the enduring paradox of racism and racial progress in the United States. Conflict between the diverse coalition that elected Barack Obama and the white supremacist backlash that brought Trump to power reveals ongoing, perhaps deepening racism in the United States. This racism subverts the nation’s lofty ideals of freedom and equality. In Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, the paradox of American slavery and American freedom began. Four hundred years later we must ask, how far have we truly come? And where are we going?

Robert Trent Vinson is the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of History & Africana Studies at William & Mary. He is also the lead organizer of the 10th Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD), held November 5-9, 2019 at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

[1] James Horn, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy (New York, 2018), 85–117; Philip D. Morgan, “Virginia Slavery in Atlantic Context, 1550 to 1650,” in Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America, ed. Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, and James Horn (Chapel Hill, 2019), 85–107; Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996), 115–33; Anthony S. Parent Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740 (Chapel Hill, 2003).

[2] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, ed. Douglas Bradburn and John C. Coombs (Charlottesville, 2011), 255–63.

[3] Carol Anderson, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy (New York, 2018).