Virginia's governors have long dealt with issues of race

We’ve not had a racial debacle like this -- involving a governor of Virginia -- in recent history.

Gov. Ralph Northam is embroiled in an issue that began with a photograph of a person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan attire on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. At first Northam apologized for the photograph and his association with it. The next day he retracted his statements, saying he was not involved in the photograph.

Now scores of political figures, Democrats and Republicans, have called for his resignation. Newspapers across Virginia also have editorially called for him to resign. They claimed Northam has lost his moral authority to govern and the trust of black Virginians who supported him.

In the past there have been other racial situations involving Virginia governors, but they occurred in the era of segregation and Massive Resistance, when there were few voices to call for censure, much less a resignation. The racial culture was different.

For example, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. (1958-1962), as court decrees came down for Virginia to integrate its public schools, remained adamant and did not “retreat from his unyielding stance on desegregation.” In fact, under Almond’s direction, several district schools were closed across the state when integration loomed.

On Jan. 19, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the school closing law and Almond immediately spoke, challenging the ruling and insisting the court order be appealed. “I will not yield to that which I know will be wrong and will destroy every rational semblances of public education,” he said.

Newspaper editorials across the state lamented the governor’s position and tactics. However, there were no calls for his resignation.

Another governor, Mills E. Godwin Jr., after being elected to the State Senate in 1952, became one of the leaders of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to integration. Later, however, he steered away from that extreme position held by Virginia’s U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd.

Godwin was elected Virginia governor twice: in 1965 as a Democrat and 1973 as a Republican. At those times and during his gubernatorial terms, there were few, if any, references to his segregation days because, again, the era was different than today. There were no calls for his resignation because of his previous positions.

Accolades, in fact, cited him as an education governor, who began the Virginia Community College System that focused on the state’s racial and social minorities. When he died in January 1999, there were mentions and discussions of his past when he “navigated a very dark period in American history,” as described several years ago by former Del. Rich Anderson of Prince William County.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor, however, did not offer a tribute to Godwin when he died.

Rather, he said, “I think that it is fair to state that in Mills Godwin’s Virginia, neither I, nor anyone who looked like me, could ever have been elected governor. The man who some say now should be remembered as the ‘education governor’ proposed to and indeed did, close the schools in some parts of Virginia rather than to allow equal education for all. Just how many people of both races were permanently damaged in the process is undetermined.”

Two other Virginia Governors, Thomas B. Stanley (1954-1958) and Albertis S. Harrison Jr. (1962-1966), also were involved in the era of Massive Resistance challenges.

It was Stanley who, taking leadership from Sen. Byrd, created the Stanley Plan, adopted by the legislature in an attempt to evade court decisions against segregation. The 13 statutes included pupil assignment to maintain racially segregated schools; automatic closure of public schools that racially integrated; funding cut offs; and tuition grants to all school students in closed schools that were to integrate.

As governor and earlier as state attorney general, Harrison made the last stand against racial integration. But that was the way it was in Virginia in those days.

Ultimately, closed schools were reopened and integration slowly spread throughout the commonwealth. The famed “separate but equal” notion was proved to be a fallacy.

The racial climate of Virginia has improved greatly since those years, but as Gov. Wilder pointed out years ago and most recently with Gov. Northam, the climate is not without its violent storms.

Kale, a long-time Williamsburg area resident and contributor to the Gazette, is a former journalist and historian who has written several books on local history.

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