The Virginia Senate voted 36 to 3 Tuesday to remove the capitol’s statue of former Democratic Governor Harry Byrd, Sr. His legacy is marked by his expansion of Virginia’s economy and roads, and is tarnished by a battle to block desegregating schools. The House of Delegates had already voted in favor of the bill, HB 2208, introduced by Delegate Jay Jones (D-Norfolk.) Governor Ralph Northam is expected to approve the bill.
Senator Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) advocated keeping the statue. “Not withstanding the bad, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. had a life that left Virginia quite a legacy,” she said.
Vogel described how Byrd’s experience with transportation in his apple business led him to develop road networks, and how his experience rescuing The Winchester Evening Star from financial collapse led him to pioneer a pay-as-you go financial politics for the Commonwealth.
“He went on to become a State Senator, a Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a United States Senator,” she said.
“Certainly, the great stain on Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.’s career was when this country was being ripped apart by segregation. He was an advocate of massive resistance, and that is a great stain on his career, and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said.
However, Vogel said that everyone is the sum of their good and bad parts, and suggested that Byrd’s legacy as a whole was worth memorializing.
“He was a man of a certain time and a certain era,” she said.
Senate Majority Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) replied, “We’ve been asked to overlook what certainly a major part of his life in remembrance was, but I would say to the Senator from Fauquier County that it’s almost like saying, ‘Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you enjoy the play?'”
Responding to fears that more monuments and statues could be taken down, Saslaw explained the differences between Byrd’s legacy and the legacy of other famous Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both owned slaves. He said that both of those men were born less than about 120 years after the first slaves were brought to Jamestown. Byrd was born in 1887, 268 years after the first slaves at Jamestown, and was born 22 years after emancipation.
Saslaw also said that although Jefferson and Washington owned slaves, they were known for, respectively, organizing the country and winning the war against the British.
About Byrd Saslaw said, “Probably 100,000 students, if not more, in this state, were kept out of school for four years simply because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under Brown v. Board of Education you couldn’t have separate but equal. It simply didn’t exist, and it was a non-zero decision, which upset Senator Byrd.”
Saslaw reminded the senators of their concerns over the harm of the past year of virtual learning, and said that Byrd kept 100,000 children from having access to school of any kind for four years just because of their race.
“Some of them years later [are] still living with the psychological damage done by that, including at least one of the members of this body,” Saslaw said. “It’s not something that we can simply overlook.”
Senators Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), and Vogel were the only senators to vote against removing the statue to storage.
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