Carry Me Back: Virginia’s historical reluctance to reject racism

Q: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?

Virginians have always had a hard time letting anything go. From light bulbs in fatuous old jokes to buildings and institutions that have far outlived their usefulness, we stubbornly cling to them in a legacy we cannot shake off. It is ingrained as a sub-chapter of what Douglas Southall Freeman termed the Virginia Way, which gives Virginians latitude to segregate, subjugate, suppress, cling to and retain like gentlemen, unlike those brutes in the Deep South who give these traits a bad name.

The recent tone-deaf insistence of the 2019 Virginia Senate to honor slave owner Robert E. Lee “as a great Virginian and a great American,” despite the presence on the dais of a black Lt. Governor, Justin Fairfax, who descended from slaves, proves that despite how open-minded we sometimes like to consider ourselves, historically we simply are unable or unwilling to divest ourselves of our racist history.

Some Virginians today still balk at renaming schools and highways adorned with the names of Confederate generals. They fly rebel flags and howl at suggestions to take down monuments to the “heroes” of the lost cause, citing “heritage not hate.” They still even embrace the death penalty, which as a remnant of the Jim Crow era is well-known for unfairly targeting minorities, the poor and the mentally ill.

The song “Carry me back to Old Virginny” was written in 1878 by a college-educated, non-native black man named James A. Bland. In 1940 the song was adopted as the Virginia state song by House Joint Resolution №10, despite the presence of not just outdated and offensive words like “Darkey” and “Massa,” but the point of view the song projects of a freed slave who longs for the pre-emancipation days. He pines of being back on the plantation, and of his desires to be free of modern worries and join “massa and misses” at “the bright and golden shore.”

A debate in the 1940 General assembly centered not on the song’s objectionable language or pro-slavery sentiments, but whether the word “Virginny” should be replaced by “Virginia” in the title, which it finally officially was. Unbelievably, this remained Virginia’s state song until 1997, even during the administration of L. Douglas Wilder, America’s first black governor.

In his 2015 book, “Son of Virginia: A Life in America’s Political Arena,” Wilder writes frankly of his outspoken dislike for the song during his years as a Senator then as Governor, and how it was even sung in his presence, forcing him and his wife to leave the room. He relates he was told by one person at the time that “People don’t mean anything by it … you have to get this out of your system.”

He states that the first bill he introduced as a Senator in 1970 was to abolish that song — but he was unprepared for the blowback he received, and the bill went down in flames. In fact, the song defied legislative efforts to replace it every year from 1988 until 1994.

From 1994 to 1997 the General Assembly considered making lyric changes to make the song sound less like a black man longing for slavery days, and more like general nostalgia for the old Virginia of the past. House Joint Resolution №179 requested the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “… review the official state song and make recommendations for changes to its language, as certain lyrics are offensive to many citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Astonishingly, the legislature failed to pass any of those changes. As a compromise, in 1997 the offensive song was not retired but relegated to “state song emeritus,” an ambiguous and made-up designation that remains in 2019.

From the 1930s up through the early 1980s, Minstrel Shows primarily in the Shenandoah Valley were wildly popular, elaborate productions, with performances highly anticipated and frequently sold out, despite doggedly emulating many traditions of their racist past.

The most well-known form of “minstrelsy” mercilessly parodied black culture and mannerisms, incorporating songs and skits performed in racist “plantation” dialect. The minstrel shows performed in rural Virginia in the 1940s closely followed that original nineteenth-century format. Shows usually began with a “cakewalk,” when the performers entered the stage in an exaggerated, comical manner that (unknown to mostly white audiences) blacks had used to mimic how white slave owners actually walked.

The performers then gathered in a semi-circle, bookended on both sides by “end-men,” with a “Mr. Interlocutor,” or master of ceremonies, in the middle. The Interlocutor introduced the musical acts while his sometimes gaudily-dressed and clownish “end-men” kept a steady stream of jokes and wisecracks coming to entertain between acts. Many shows featured a “stump speech,” performed by the Interlocutor, which was a supposed dignified oration but delivered in mangled and broken plantation English for comedic effect.

1973 Minstrel show ad

The Staunton News Leader reported on April 28, 1972, that in one local Ruritan performance “five of the end men wear black grease paint, but the most convincing shuffle and the funniest lines” came from a man “wearing white grease paint.” One Ruritan Club’s show in 1973 was themed “Cotton Fields,” and that same club’s 1979 show, titled “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” featured not only an Interlocutor but five “end men” sporting the traditionally stereotypical “minstrel” monikers Calhoun, Alfalfa, Kingfish, Pancake and Lightning.

Similarly, many (such as myself) who attended rural Virginia high schools in the 1970s recall “slave auctions,” where a well-known upperclassman (usually a high-profile athlete, and almost never a female) stood in the gym on a box and was “auctioned off” as a fundraiser. The highest bidder received the service of that upperclassman for the day, either by carrying books or going to the front of the lunch line.

Such regressive foundations in the history of Virginia slavery and race relations may be attributed to Virginia’s decision in 1948 to let the General Assembly take direct control of public-school textbook production. The assembly that year established a commission, under the oversight of the segregationist Harry F. Byrd dynasty, to hire authors and edit manuscripts for three statewide textbooks called “Virginia History, Geography and Government.”

“Virginia History, Government, Geography,” 1957

These books — written for grades 4–11, and chronicled by Richmond journalist Rex Springston in 2018 — tidied up the more sordid aspects of Virginia history, frequently describing slaves as happy, and referring to them as servants, not chattel. The high school text “Cavalier Commonwealth” stated that a slave “did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job.” One book claimed that contact between English settlers and Virginia’s Native Americans at Jamestown in 1607 resulted in “a better life for both the settlers and the Indians.”

Civil rights legislation received almost no mention at all in this government-produced propaganda not just to sweep the past under the carpet but as a way of ignoring or diminishing the impending policies of President Harry S. Truman. Plus, with the onset of the Communist scare and the activities of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee, these politicians saw their work as keeping teachers from spreading progressive (i.e. communist) ideas.

The power of the State Board of Education to select their own textbooks was negated that year by legislation that made it a partner with the commission, usurping most if not all of their decision-making processes. Thus segregation-era politicians, not scholars, were responsible for a whitewashed version of Virginia history, protested by many educators but still read by millions of students into the early 1970s, when they were eventually phased out.

And while the books themselves are finally gone, the ideas expressed in them, “historically unfounded as many of them may be, are still widespread today,” said Melvin Patrick Ely, a Bancroft Prize-winning historian at the College of William & Mary said in the April 14, 2018 Richmond Times-Dispatch story titled “Happy slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks.” “They crop up in the debate over Confederate monuments and in other realms of life.”

And the hits kept on coming. We fought tooth and nail throughout the 1950s to keep our schools segregated, with “Massive Resistance” going so far as to close some of them rather than integrate, depriving hundreds of black children formal educations. It wasn’t until the Linwood Holton administration from 1970 to 1974 that public schools across the Commonwealth uniformly segregated (ironically, by closing many black schools, thus erasing their legacies). Virginia could not repeal a miscegenation law prohibiting interracial marriage until pushed into a corner by the Supreme Court case Loving v. Va in 1967. We continued practicing eugenics, or involuntary sterilizations of those considered unfit to bear children (which like the death penalty overwhelmingly targeted blacks, the poor and the mentally ill), until 1979 (with the General Assembly not denouncing the practice until 2001).

Isolated micro-traditions as minstrel shows, confederate commemorations and high school slave auctions, up to more widespread institutional displays of subjugation such as eugenics and miscegenation laws were (and in some cases, such as capital punishment, still are) considered acceptable for decades because many of us grew up in the 1960s reading that those forms of social engineering were simply not so bad. These stubborn remnants of a racial past can be rightly considered a result of propaganda indoctrination from that Jim Crow-era school system.

There are glimmers of hope. Greater awareness and reforms of past racial inequities in confederate memorials, the death penalty and criminal justice are gaining traction. For example, descendants of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson came to the Virginia State Capitol on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King to oppose future commemorations of their confederate forefathers. “As a Robert Lee, I want to be a different footnote in history,” Lee’s great-great-great-great nephew said in Jan. 21, 2019 interview in the Washington Post. “And I want to stand with Justin Fairfax … and say that honoring the racist, white-supremacist past that we hold with statues, with mentions … on the floor of the commonwealth’s legislature is a no-go for me and a no-go for so many people of goodwill in the South.”

In response, Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George), who conducted the tribute, was quoted in the same story as saying “he would quit doing the annual tribute if people found it offensive.”

Q: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: You should be able to guess the answer by now.

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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Dale M. Brumfield

Dale M. Brumfield

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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