Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday unveiled his justice and equity agenda, which would allow local governments to remove Confederate monuments and grant programs that promote black history and education for racial awareness.
“Virginia’s history is difficult and complex, and it is important that we tell the full and true story of our past 400 years,” Northam said. “When we have a complete understanding of how we got to the present, we are better prepared to improve our shared future. These proposals will help us to tell the story of people and places that for too long have been neglected or marginalized and continue to build a modern, diverse, and inclusive Commonwealth.”
Current state law does not permit localities to remove Confederate monuments, but the governor is calling for a change to that law. Northam said that, for some people, these monuments are a reminder of the torture and enslavement of their ancestors and that local governments should be able to decide for their communities whether certain monuments should stay up. He said that these communities can decide what type of monument represents them today.
There are currently about 220 Confederate monuments in Virginia. As part of Northam’s agenda, he will also create a commission to replace the Robert E. Lee statue at the state capitol with a different monument that represents the “diverse and inclusive” Virginia that exists today.
The governor also plans to create a grant program to fund the maintenance of African American cemeteries. Northam hopes to provide maintenance funds of $5 per grave through the Department of Historic Resources. There are 24 certified African American burial grounds, although the exact number of such cemeteries are unknown. The governor’s budget proposal will include $250,000 for maintenance for African American cemeteries and the cost of hiring historical preservationists.
Northam’s budget will also include funding for historical highway markers that reflect black history. He will also propose $4.5 million for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia designed to support educational experience for K-12 students.
“Virginia’s history is much richer, much more diverse, and much more complicated than what many of us were taught in school,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler said. “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.”
Last year, Northam faced allegations of racism and calls for his resignation after a photo emerged that was on his medical school yearbook page. This photo showed one person wearing blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. Although Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, he later backtracked and said that he was not either of the two men in the picture.