In the Community

Civil rights panel discusses laws and racism, urges reconciliation

Panelists and organizers for National Day of Racial Healing event in January 2020.

In order to achieve its vision of a thriving community for all, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation recently held a community dialogue in honor of the National Day of Racial Healing on Jan. 21, in partnership with Virginians for Reconciliation.

As the country and community become more racially diverse, we have an opportunity to learn about each other and the history that has kept us divided.

In order to achieve its vision of a thriving community for all, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation recently held a community dialogue in honor of the National Day of Racial Healing on January 21, in partnership with Virginians for Reconciliation.

National Day of Racial Healing began in 2017 by the philanthropic organization W.K. Kellogg Foundation. According to the organization’s website: “Racial healing is a process that restores individuals and communities to wholeness, repairs the damage caused by racism and transforms societal structures into ones that affirm the inherent value of all people.”

The local event convened a civil rights panel to discuss how some United States laws have fostered discrimination. It featured descendants of plaintiffs and judges in two landmark 19th-century U.S. Supreme Court cases – The Dred Scott Decision and Plessy v. Ferguson.

Nearly 1,000 people packed the L. Douglas Wilder Center at Norfolk State University to hear four panelists discuss the impact of laws and systems that have oppressed Black residents for hundreds of years. The event featured a video message from Gov. Ralph Northam. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who leads Virginians for Reconciliation, gave remarks along with representatives from Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University, which also were event partners.

"Race really does matter and attention must be paid, now more than ever." s Dr. Debbie DiCroce, CEO of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation

This event aligns with the community foundation’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative and it falls under the civic engagement series called Understanding Hampton Roads.

Panel moderator, Henry L. Chambers Jr., a law professor at the University of Richmond, provided background information on the cases.

  • Dred Scott, who was born in Southampton County, Virginia sued for his freedom when his slave owner traveled with him to the free state of Illinois. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the court’s opinion denying Scott his freedom, essentially stating the people of African descent were not U.S. citizens and could therefore not sue in federal court.
  • Homer Plessy, who was of mixed race, was jailed for refusing to sit in a railway carriage for Black people, and he sued to test the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation in public accommodations. However, Judge John Ferguson wrote in his court opinion that such accommodations were not a matter of civil rights and that separate facilities for racial groups was constitutional.

Chambers, the moderator, asked the panelists – all descendants of the court plaintiffs and judges – how they would respond to people who question these cases’ relevance today.

Charles Taney IV responded that reconciliation is always timely. "You can't leave it in the past,” he said. White Americans should recognize the harm that was done and make efforts to reconcile with Black Americans. Everyone has a role to play in reconciliation and the steps can be simple but significant, he said.

Taney encouraged people to invite a family of a different culture to dinner, to talk about history and their background as well as to pledge to work together on present-day solutions.

"We're just not there yet,” said Phoebe Ferguson. "We have to keep working on these issues of equity and race."

Keith Plessy said his family had to forgive others who wronged his ancestors, and that their unification efforts have led to positive changes in the community and to reconciliation.

“It's no longer Plessy versus Ferguson. It's Plessy and Ferguson....Find a way to come together." Keith Plessy

The country and community still have a lot to do in order to reconcile, said Lynne Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Dred Scott and founder of The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. She encouraged people to look at segregation-era laws that are still on the books and to advocate for public officials to change them.

“It just takes stepping out,” she said. “Try something.”

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