This year in Richmond there are 23 African American lawmakers serving in the General Assembly. While that number is the largest in recent history, it isn’t record-breaking.
Here’s a look at the story of black lawmakers in Virginia, and how the Legislative Black Caucus plans to continue their legacy.
Black representation in Virginia’s General Assembly was at its peak in 1869. That year, there were 29 African American lawmakers. The Civil War was over and Virginians had new rights enshrined in a new constitution, and enforced by federal troops.
“For the first time African Americans were granted the right to vote. They were granted the right to hold office in Virginia. It did, however, exclude women,” said Joseph Rogers, a historian with the American Civil War Museum. “It allowed for African Americans to see themselves in positions of importance that had been held in a legislature that had been in existence for over 200 years by that point.”
For the next two decades, turnout of black voters in Virginia sometimes reached more than 80%. Lawmakers expanded voting access, enacted criminal justice reform and created the state’s first public education system.
But the representation wouldn’t last. By 1889 federal troops had withdrawn and white supremacist violence began to re-suppress the black vote.
“Which caused people to feel as though it wasn’t worth their lives to try to stand for election, to try and be seated in the General Assembly, to try and have representation that looked like them,” explained Rogers.
It would take 80 years, and the Civil Rights movement, before an African American was elected to Virginia’s legislature once more.
Senator Jennifer McClellan joined those slowly growing numbers in 2005. She says the legislature has made progress, but is still recovering from its racist past.
“So few people know that history, they don’t know the long lasting impacts of that history and how it impacts public policy and communities today,” McClellan said in a recent interview at the capitol.
But for black lawmakers, that history is ingrained in their lives, explained McClellan. Her own great grandfather had to pass a literacy test to get his right to vote in the Jim Crow South. Now, she gets to write and pass voting laws.
“I carry that with me every single day. And know that I am his legacy,” McClellan said. “Every single member of the legislative black caucus has one of those stories, that shapes who we are and the policies that we put forward today.”
McClellan calls the legislative black caucus the conscious of the legislature. And this year, they’re louder than ever.
They’re pushing a long list of progressive policies, including reforming marijuana laws, fully-funding Virginia’s public schools, and automatic voter registration. They want to tackle predatory lending, affordable housing, and raising the minimum wage.
“The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is above and beyond just protecting the rights of black Virginians," said VLBC Chair Delegate Lamont Bagby. "We are focused on those individuals that are at the margins - whether black, white, or other."
To achieve those goals, the black caucus now has the most power they’ve had since Reconstruction. In addition to raw numbers, their members are placed in key leadership roles.
Of the 14 committees in the House of Delegates, half will be chaired by members of the black caucus, including the powerful appropriations committee. Bagby said they’ll use that power to ensure all legislation gets a full and fair hearing.
Then, there’s last February, when Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam struggled to explain a racist photo found on his medical-school yearbook page. The photo featured two men, one in a Klan robe and the other in blackface. Northam did admit to having darkened his face during a Michael Jackson dance contest.
Josh Cole was a candidate at the time, and president of his local chapter of the NAACP. He called on Northam to resign.
Now, he’s a lawmaker and new member of the black caucus. He plans to take full advantage of having the Governor’s ear, and he says the incident has given black lawmakers more power.
“I can say ‘Nah, ah ah!’,” Cole said. “Now we’re going to hold you to it...Instead of resigning (Northam said) ‘I’m going to do all that I can to be one of the most progressive Governors for the African American communities.’ And we believe we can hold his feet to the fire on that.”
Cole says black lawmakers will not be brushed aside. And while their growing ranks are powerfully symbolic, now is also the time to buckle down and get the work done.
“You have to put the infrastructure in place, and that’s what we’re doing right now with the legislation,” said Cole.