Big Trouble for Virginia's Big Birthday Party

By Jamie Stiehm

February 13, 2019 5 min read

O Virginia, named for the virgin queen, Elizabeth.

Some of my best friends are Virginians.

Across the river from Washington, it's down South. Brilliant, charming, redheaded Thomas Jefferson is still "Mr. Jefferson" on the University of Virginia's stately grounds. There's no Virginian as Virginian as he: contradictions, closets, declarations and so many enslaved people.

Ol' Virginny, 400 years old, remains one of the loveliest states, stunning in spring. But the English settlement — and flourishing American state — was stained with the blood of African slavery from the first year, 1619, until 1863, when President Lincoln freed 4 million enslaved people.

To celebrate the big birthday, Virginia is having a political epic that rivals all mid-Atlantic midwinter storms. The rafters are shaking at the State Capitol in Richmond, designed by Jefferson.

The nation is turning its eyes to an excruciating drama, where race and gender got caught in a crossfire.

The three top elected officials — Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — are Democrats, in a state recently turned blue.

Northam's crucible came first in a surreal sequence when his medical school yearbook turned up a picture on his page — one figure in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. He denied involvement in the '80s photo, after causing confusion, turmoil and anger by apologizing. Saying he had once used shoe polish on his face to call up Michael Jackson in a dance contest didn't help.

Here's the thing: The offensive yearbook surfaced on a right-wing site the day after Northam defended late-term reproductive rights, as a doctor. That revenge is not a coincidence. Northam deserves thanks for supporting women's constitutional human rights. Let's not overlook the catalyst.

Northam attended integrated public schools on the Eastern Shore, during a rural boyhood. His ancestors owned slaves. His father would not tolerate racism. Yet at 59, he says he's awakened to what his own "white privilege" has really meant. He vows to dedicate the rest of his term to race and equity.

The governor appears clearly contrite and sincere. Gayle King, a CBS News morning host, affirmed this after a soul-searching interview. John W. Boyd, the National Black Farmers Association president, decided to defend him.

What really matters is that most black Virginians believe he should stay in office. If Northam's own constituents of color are willing to forgive and move on, best not to have a constitutional crisis. From living and breathing in Virginia, they are the best judges of who's racist at heart.

The anguish wasn't over yet.

Twenty years younger, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax was fixing to move into the governor's mansion when two serious allegations of sexual assault surfaced.

Both women were willing to speak in public and by name, which made their similar stories more credible. They are both African American, so is Fairfax. Like Northam, he has clung to office in the howling storm.

Just when you thought Virginia politics couldn't get weirder, the attorney general admitted that he, too, donned blackface in his younger days. The rich irony is that Herring had urged Northam to resign. Herring, second in line to be governor, mended fences by asking people of color in the general assembly, one by one, for forgiveness.

Some birthday party.

The Confederacy's heart, Virginia still has holidays, schools, statues and highways named after Civil War figures like Jefferson Davis. Richmond, the capital, is now moving to name the "Boulevard" after the late Arthur Ashe, the tennis great and humanitarian champion who grew up in the segregated city.

General Robert E. Lee lived in lofty Arlington House, seized by President Lincoln as a lookout, army camp and Arlington military cemetery. Union soldiers were laid to rest in Mrs. Lee's flower garden, as if to say their blood was on Lee's hands.

Virginia will always be the land of presidents: Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, early in the Republic. Wealthy "planters" all, a nice name for slaveholder. Jefferson had a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, his dead wife's half-sister. Her room can be seen at Monticello, his mansion.

This began the first of February. Happy Black History Month, Virginia. It's all there for you.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit the website,

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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