More on 1619
2/1/2019, 6 a.m.
Re Editorial, “Encouraging,” Free Press Jan 10-12 edition and letter to the editor, “Virginia’s ‘big falsehood,’” Free Press Jan. 24-26 edition:
The editorial and letter to the editor highlight some painful ironies of Virginia’s history.
In 1619, some Virginians formed the first representative legislature in the New World. A few weeks later, some of those same Virginians purchased and probably enslaved the first recorded Africans who were forcibly stolen from their families and inhumanely transported across the Atlantic Ocean to Virginia.
The General Assembly — which after 1643 consisted of the Council of State and the House of Burgesses that was created in that year — has been in continual existence since 1619, first under the authority of the king and thereafter under the authority of the Virginia state constitutions of 1776, 1830, 1851, 1864, 1869, 1902 and 1970, each of which re-created the assembly.
It is right to commemorate and celebrate the formation and long existence of representative government. It is also right to condemn the actions of that government, which between 1619 and 1865, created the law of slavery and required hundreds of thousands of Virginians to live in slavery.
On Oct. 22, 1867, Virginia voters — white people and black people who were formerly enslaved and always free — elected members of a convention to write a new state constitution. It was one of the most important events of the epic decade that finally witnessed the destruction of slavery.
That election occurred not under the authority of any law the General Assembly had passed or of the army, which some history books have incorrectly stated, but under the joint authority of an act of Congress and a referendum by which those same Virginia voters authorized the convention.
In 1869, two and a half centuries after creation of slavery and the General Assembly, Virginia voters ratified a new state constitution that was much more democratic than any before that time.
The Constitution of 1869 abolished the remnants of minority rule that slave owners had created in the 17th century, created the state’s first public school system and guaranteed the vote to all adult men. (Women won the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.)
The Constitution of 1902 sabotaged many of the democratic reforms the Constitution of 1869 had made to Virginia’s politics and government. It required the Civil Rights Movement later in the century to undo the undemocratic damage done in 1902.
There is much to admire in Virginia’s long history, but also much to regret. We cannot understand any of it if we ignore any part of it, especially the bad and disturbing parts.
In 2019, we should observe the anniversary of the simultaneous creation of the General Assembly and slavery with wide open eyes and a willingness to think anew about some of the incorrect interpretations people learned in school and still sometimes encounter in textbooks, newspapers and on television.
The writer is a retired Library of Virginia research historian.