Tackling the Roots of Racism in Virginia

Published:June 30, 2020 by Peter Hedlund

Working on an encyclopedia day in and day out for more than a decade is rewarding and sometimes depressing. It’s rewarding to think that—if you are doing your job responsibly—the resource you are helping to create may contribute to an open and honest dialogue about the past and how that past informs the present. It’s depressing when you are constantly reminded about how repetitive the darkest and most malignant aspects of this history are. Discrimination and violence against Black people—and the creation and preservation of systems that permit that violence—are recurring themes in Virginia history. And so here we are in the year 2020 presented with incontrovertible video evidence that this violence continues on the streets of America.

In 1619 slavery began in Virginia and so did the lie of white supremacy. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, explains that this lie was “necessary to justify enslavement.” In fact, what we know as the Commonwealth of Virginia has existed with slavery far longer than it has existed without it. Four hundred years ago the first Africans arrived on Virginia’s shores. Slavery was the reality in Virginia for the next 250 years. It was enslaved labor that—brick by brick—constructed much of the physical infrastructure still standing throughout Virginia. Who performed the myriad tasks necessary to keep their enslavers’ homes running. Whose forced labor established the financial foundations of future generations of white wealth. After the Civil War, white Virginians used the Lost Cause narrative to obscure the truth of the past and to justify and fuel the violence, discrimination, and disfranchisement of African Americans. This Lost Cause mythology and its concomitant white supremacy were still present in the textbooks from which today’s generation of politicians and leaders were taught. 

It’s also important to recognize that the story of African Americans in Virginia is not limited to enslavement, violence, and discrimination. Black Virginians resisted slavery, leading to its eventual abolition. In the twentieth century people like Maggie Lena Walker, Anne Spencer, and Virginia Estelle Randolph contributed to more empowered, creative, and educated communities. 

At Encyclopedia Virginia our goal is to publish honest articles about both the triumphs and the horrors of the past. But we are also committed to improving the way we do that, and so we pledge to look at our own project critically by asking the question “How can we counter the racism that persists in Virginia and beyond?” Towards that end we make the following pledge:

  1. We will continue to include voices, stories, and perspectives that have been excluded from the mainstream historical narrative of Virginia.
  2. We will seek out contributors and partners who are representative of the diverse communities whose stories we hope to share.
  3. We will review the articles that have already been published in Encyclopedia Virginia and correct instances of overt and implicit bias.

American anti-Black racism took root here in Virginia and if Encyclopedia Virginia seeks to be a trustworthy and reliable resource that contributes to a more honest, just, and equitable Virginia it is imperative that we are committed to playing a role in exposing and countering racism. You’ll hear more from us in the following weeks, months, and years as we make and implement specific plans to meet these goals.

Finally, we invite your feedback, but racist or hateful comments will be deleted.


1 Comment on “Tackling the Roots of Racism in Virginia”

  1. LaToya S. Gray

    Greetings! Thank you for writing and sharing this piece. I reached out to Virginia Humanities over a year ago because I am interested in contributing, if possible. My interest is in the urban renewal period in the City of Richmond and its impact on the African American community. Thank you!

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