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Newly Democratic Virginia Legislature Hopes To Repeal Jim Crow-Era Laws


Democrats completely control the statehouse in Virginia for the first time in more than two decades. This is also the most diverse class of lawmakers in the state's history. On their agenda - repealing old, discriminatory laws. Daniella Cheslow of member station WAMU explains.

DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Every voter must pay a poll tax. It's a crime to let white and black passengers share a train car. No child is required to go to integrated schools. These and other Jim Crow-era laws are not enforced in Virginia, but they're still on the books.

CYNTHIA HUDSON: There is no explanation for it other than the dehumanization of another group of persons based on their race.

CHESLOW: That's Cynthia Hudson. She's the top deputy to the state's attorney general, and she chairs a commission to find discriminatory laws and recommend them for repeal. Hudson grew up in Virginia and experienced school segregation herself as a black child.

HUDSON: That was something that was very real to me as someone growing up and coming of age in those times.

CHESLOW: In December, Hudson's commission issued its first report. It found dozens of laws that were explicitly racist or segregationist. No one enforces those laws because of court cases and new statutes. But legislators are taking action.

Democratic state Senator Jennifer McClellan is carrying one of the bills to repeal the discriminatory laws. She is vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which has a historic number of lawmakers this session.


CHESLOW: McClellan spoke on the sidelines of a press conference celebrating the Black Caucus's newfound influence.

JENNIFER MCCLELLAN: Who we are as a commonwealth is reflected in the laws that are on our books. And it's a brand-new day.

CHESLOW: This work began last year after a scandal nearly toppled Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. The Black Caucus and most Democrats in Virginia called on him to resign after he admitted to wearing blackface in college. But Northam stayed put and instead promised to promote racial justice. He called the commission as part of that effort, and he pointed to its work in his recent State of the Commonwealth address.


RALPH NORTHAM: We know that racial discrimination is rooted in many of the laws that have governed our commonwealth.

CHESLOW: Although many of the outdated laws are not enforced, there may be others still in Virginia's code that could result in discrimination. The commission plans to target those next. Questions about race continue to be part of life in Virginia. Three couples sued the state last year for the right to get a marriage license without writing their race on their applications. Victor Glasberg represented them and said the requirement dates back to the 1924 Racial Integrity Act still on the books. He's cheering on the commission's work to repeal that law and others like it.

VICTOR GLASBERG: That's what it's all about. Get rid of this stuff. Who needs it? Why is it there? We don't need it anymore, assuming we ever did need it.

CHESLOW: At the Black Caucus, state Senator McClellan says, for years, people in Virginia didn't think to challenge questions about race that came up in their daily dealings. But in 2020, there is appetite for a reckoning.

MCCLELLAN: That question's on so many things - marriage license, birth certificates, driver's license applications. And it's unnecessary. But no one ever thought, let's change it. Let's revisit it.

CHESLOW: Virginia has other outdated laws, like making it a crime to swear or spit in public. Some lawmakers are working to repeal those, too. Democrats and Republicans are already clashing on issues like new gun control laws. But the work of repealing old, discriminatory laws may be a place for cooperation. Republicans say they will easily vote to strike those laws and address the painful past.

For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAMCAST'S "OUTER SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.