In observance of Black History Month, House Democrats gave speeches throughout February expounding on aspects of African American history. They introduced often overlooked figures in our nation’s history and highlighted the ways the legacies of Jim Crow and slavery reverberate to this day.
Delegate Lamont Bagby (D – Henrico), Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC), began the month by underscoring the importance of the annual celebration. “On this first day of black history month, I am reminded of the legacy of my predecessors. Through the celebration of black history month, we shine a light on the tremendous impact that African Americans have made on the history of our Commonwealth and our country.” Delegate Bagby went on to discuss the history of the VLBC and the ways he was inspired by its founders when he visited the Capitol as a student. “Since the establishment of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, African Americans of the Commonwealth have a voice at the table.”
Many Delegates took the opportunity to share the story of a notable African American Virginian, whose contributions may have been omitted in the history books. Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (D – Prince William) celebrated the life of Ella Josephine Baker, a Norfolk native who was the grandchild of slaves. She eventually relocated to Harlem and became heavily involved in community organizing there, eventually becoming the highest ranking woman in the NAACP as the Director of Branches. Delegate Carroll Foy concluded “Ella Baker’s legacy demonstrates the real power of grassroots organizing to make a real difference in people’s live. We must all remain active participants in our democracy and work together to fight racial injustice wherever we see it.”
When Delegate Jeion Ward (D – Hampton) rose for her speech, she referenced this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars in her discussion of the history of the Green Book. She observed that the movie did not really tell the full story, before delving into the immense importance of the guides for African American travelers, who could risk their lives by stopping in a place where they weren’t welcome. Delegate Ward shared some of her family’s experience traveling across the South, and she emphasized the impact some of those terrifying moments continue to have. “Jim Crow may be gone, but unfortunately the damage it did still lives on in us,” she concluded. “It’s up to us now, each one of us, to make this world a better place, not only for ourselves, but for our grandchildren.”
Delegate Cia Price (D – Newport News) made a similar entreaty to consider the whole story, beginning her speech by noting that “Unfortunately the stories of black women continue to be silenced and I felt like this was a good time to bring their voices to our hearing in this body.” She went on to describe the many ways that African American women have been ignored in the historical narrative, from the racism of the suffragettes to the downplaying of women’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Delegate Price concluded with a reminder to elevate the voices that have been silenced in our history, arguing, “I urge us that we need to make sure together that we tell the whole story, or else it’s just a lie.”
Delegate Delores McQuinn (D – Richmond) spoke movingly about the impact of symbols and the way they can invoke painful histories. “Black history is about trials and tragedy and triumphs for enslaved Africans and African Americans in this nation,” she noted. “This journey has been like a roller coaster, encapsulated by highs and lows, twists and turns, periods of great darkness filled with trials and tragedy but also periods of brilliant light, reflecting countless triumphs over heartbreaking obstacles.” Delegate McQuinn went on to detail the painful effect that historical symbols such as the confederate flag and nooses have on African American communities to this day. She finished her speech with a rousing call to confront Virginia’s often painful history: “I propose we look at the hard-core, difficult untold and sometimes re-written history of this Commonwealth. When we actually come face-t0-face with this difficult history, it is uncomfortable… become oftentimes the topic has been taboo and swept under the rug.”
Delegate Jay Jones (D – Norfolk), like many of his colleagues, spoke movingly about his and his family’s own experience with the legacy of Jim Crow. He observed “As the grandson and son of men and women who spent the entirety of their lives attempting to push back against the horrors of racism in Virginia, I have long been acquainted with the pain and suffering of people of color in this state.” Delegate Jones spoke about the personal impact of the Commonwealth’s painful legacies and need to confront this history head-on. “I have faith that we can make the tough choice – to tackle our history head on and move forward together to heal and reconcile. It is what my grandparents and parents have wished that we do for decades. As a young black man in this fractured commonwealth, I will do all I can to make sure that their dream – our dream – comes true.”
The House Democratic Caucus will continue to work to confront the lasting effects of Virginia’s painful history of racism and the racial inequities that remain a reality for Virginians of color.