Tackling the Roots of Racism in Virginia

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.


3 thoughts

  1. 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!

  2. Thank you for your consideration of current events, multiple perspectives and evolving, historical records-keeping practices. I have never heard of the Lost Cause, but I know well, the implicit biases that exist in school textbooks and other secondary sources. The American educational system is a work in progress, but the teachers and students that work from a more inclusive curriculum and take the time to pour over a multitude of primary resources, have the chance to bring forth a more nuanced, painful, and accurate accounting of the past. My hope is that we walk through the pain and move into a more enlightened future.

  3. Thanks for your post. In reading several articles today on our current moment of racial reawakening, there was a link to this site.
    I grew up in Henrico County and went to segregated public schools and attended high school in 1969 as a sophomore when my county’s schools finally de-segregated in response to the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education.
    I think this effort, this project, is a wonderful one and one that I imagine most Virginians past and present, do not know about.
    May I suggest you include some oral history recollections (of the recent variety, obviously) of people who lived during much of Virginia’s recent history, as I have. Not sure if you accept links, but here is one I found from a fellow-Henrico county resident who went to segregated black schools in Henrico and we found that we both admired the same teacher (see my comments to his post)! He, before 1969, and me after. Stories like these could add to this site.


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