RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Governor Ralph Northam has announced his support for a bill to give Richmond and other localities control over their Confederate monuments, but he’s also pushing for what he calls historical justice and equity legislation.
Thursday, Northam said he plans to back several bills dedicated to telling, “more comprehensive and [the] inclusive story of the past, teaching history that accurately reflects the stories and experiences of everyone.”
"When we tell a fuller more inclusive story of our past, we can better address how that past affects our future,” Northam said.
“Virginia’s history is much richer, much more diverse, and much more complicated than what many of us were taught in school,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler. “For too long we have overlooked or dismissed important historical truths we found too uncomfortable to confront – I am committed to working with the Department of Historic Resources and the Department of Conservation and Recreation to present a more balanced history of the Commonwealth.”
Just hours after his state of the Commonwealth address, Northam turned his focus to these issues.
"Old enslaved African cemeteries and African American cemeteries, especially those before 1900, have not been identified, maintained or respected," said Delegate Delores McQuinn (D – Chesterfield).
Northam is backing a bill to create a Historic African American Cemetery Grant Program and provide money to maintain these often neglected cemeteries.
“This legislation will allow our Department of Historic Resources to support historic African American cemeteries as it does our revolutionary war and civil war cemeteries using federal funds,” Northam said.
These cemeteries would receive annual maintenance funds of $5 per grave.
“They wrote an amazing legacy of perseverance, determination and survival,” McQuinn said.
Since 2017, the General Assembly has certified 24 cemeteries which have been supported by these funds, however the number of historical African American burial grounds in Virginia is unknown.
“This proposed legislation will provide long overdue equitable, perpetual care for historical cemeteries and graves as they submit qualifying applications for the fund.”
The bill also calls for spending more than $100,000 to hire a full-time experienced historic preservationist who would focus on cemeteries, burial grounds and human remains.
The governor also wants to spend another $100,000 annually to create new historical highway markers across the state.
“We have more than 2,700 markers around the state, but only 300 of them tell stories about African Americans in our history,” Northam said. “That’s unacceptable.”
“When we only look at one aspect of a narrative then an entire group of people is left out and neglected – denigrated,” said Colita Fairfax, Chair of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. “There is then no historical empathy for those who were scourged.”
As the controversial debate over Confederate monuments picks up again, Northam has thrown his support behind a bill which would authorize local governments to have control.
"Our communities must be the ones to decide what best represents who they are today,” Northam said.
The announcement comes following Richmond City Council voting to ask the General Assembly to allow them to have control over the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue earlier this week.
Northam also announced a bill to authorize the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol to provide removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection. The proposal would include a replacement statue of a well-known Virginian citizen.
“Robert E. Lee represents a painful and divisive past,” Northam said. “We will recommend a replacement that better represents the modern, diverse inclusive state our Commonwealth is today.”
The Governor also briefly addressed the scandals from February 2019 which left many Virginians and fellow lawmakers questioning his leadership.
“Obviously February was a tough time for Virginia,” Northam said. “I appreciate Virginians for sticking with me. I have listened to a lot of Virginians, I have learned a lot and I think we’ve taken some great measures to address equity and address diversity and inclusivity in the Commonwealth. You heard a lot of that last night, a lot of this today with historic justice. We will continue to do everything we can to write the wrongs of the past.”
Other budget-related proposals include $2.4 million for the city of Alexandria to expand the museum at the Freedom House.
“The site was once part of the headquarters for the largest domestic slave trading firm in the United States,” lawmakers said.
“Just to think about how they used to bring human being and auction them off… I regret that part of our past,” Northam said.
He also proposed $1 million annually to expand the exhibition at Maymont “Below Stairs: In Service and Beyond”, which tells the story of the 25-30 largely African American Service population who worked in and around the Dooley mansion from 1893-1925.
To support the Commission on African American History Education, Governor Northam also proposed nearly $4.5 million for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the American Civil War Museum to support educational experiences for K-12 students that are aligned to Virginia’s Standards of Learning.
“These legislative and budget investments are vital investments in our children’s education,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “History plays a vital role in public education, providing invaluable lessons and stories we can all learn from. It is particularly important that we provide opportunities for each and every Virginia student to learn from the exceptional historical assets in our Commonwealth.”
For more information on Northam’s historic justice proposals, click here.
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