Don’t Carry Me Back to Old Virginny

The flap over Confederate History Month recalls the mean, mean side of the Old Dominion.

Segregated King George School - Getty Images - Alfred Eisenstaedt
Segregated King George School - Getty Images - Alfred Eisenstaedt

When I was a kid in Washington back in the 1950s, I used to watch my dad’s face change whenever we had to drive across the bridge into Virginia. His jaw would clinch, his eyes would harden, and his body would assume a determined but wary posture, as though he were preparing to enter a battle zone.

In a way, that was exactly what he was doing. In those days before the Brown v. Board decision, Washington was a segregated southern city, but compared to Virginia it was a racial paradise.

The Old Dominion was a place whose governors led the “massive resistance” campaign against school desegregation and where local officials like those in Prince Edward County shut down the entire public school system rather than allow black children to sit in the same classroom as white children. It was, in short, a mean, mean place that camouflaged its viciousness beneath a veneer of drawling Southern gentility while courtly so-called intellectuals like James J. Kilpatrick served up platitudinous rationales for keeping Negroes in their separate and decidedly unequal place on the editorial page of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

All that seemed like ancient history when I moved to Richmond almost four years ago. The Times Dispatch, for example, had a black editor. The governor, Tim Kaine, was a liberal Democrat and former civil rights attorney; his father-in-law, Linwood Holton, had been the moderate Republican governor who a generation earlier had finally halted Virginia’s defiance of integration and placed his own children in mostly black Richmond public schools. More proof that Virginia had entered a new era came in 2006, when U.S. Senator George Allen, a neo-segregationist Republican, lost his seat to Jim Webb, a moderate Democrat, after he was caught on videotape hurling an ethnic slur at an Asian American on Webb’s staff.

The icing on the cake arrived two years later when Barack Obama moved Virginia from the red column into the blue, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won the state in 40 years.

I thought the millennium had come.

Curses, foiled again.

Last November, a bland-looking Republican named Bob McDonnell clobbered a hapless and rather unattractive Democratic opponent to put the governorship back in GOP hands. Another Republican, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II, became state attorney general. And ever since they were sworn in back in January, the two officials have been hell-bent on driving Virginia back into the bad old days from whence I thought it had escaped.