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Thomas Jett

Virginia Communities, Legislators Breathe New Life into Preserving Black Cemeteries

BLACK CEMETERIES

By George Copeland Jr. and Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a hot Saturday in April, volunteers work under a bright sun and the noise of buzzing insects to find and remove unchecked nature and neglect from the graves of thousands of African-Americans, from everyday citizens to some of the most important leaders in local, state and national history.

The neighboring Evergreen and East End cemeteries serve as the final resting place of Maggie Walker, the first female bank president in the U.S.; John Mitchell, a newspaper publisher who risked his life to crusade for civil rights; and Rosa Dixon Bowser, founder of the Virginia State Teachers Association.

“When Black Richmond was the ‘Harlem of the South,’ when Jackson Ward was known as ‘Black Wall Street,’ these are the people who made those places,” said Brian Palmer of the Friends of East End Cemetery volunteer group.

But the state of the burial grounds can be a stark contrast to the stature of the prominent figures buried there. Over the years, Evergreen, East End and many other black cemeteries across Virginia have fallen into disrepair, uncared for and unacknowledged. More recently, concerned residents have rallied to restore, record and maintain the history of the many laid to rest.

“It is not, shall we say, stunningly beautiful to someone who is more familiar with cemeteries like Hollywood [where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is buried], or the Confederate section of Oakwood, but to us, it is remarkable,” Palmer said of the work accomplished in East End since community efforts increased in 2013.

Across the commonwealth, volunteers like Palmer labor to restore the state’s African-American cemeteries, shining a light on a part of Virginia’s history often overshadowed by the legacy of the Confederacy. In recent years, these volunteers have seen support from a new source: the Virginia General Assembly, which has approved state funding for cleaning up and maintaining several of these cemeteries.

East End and Evergreen, on the line between Richmond and Henrico County, were the first African-American cemeteries in Virginia to receive help from the state government. In 2017, House Bill 1547 was signed into law. It allowed qualifying charitable organizations to collect maintenance funds for the two cemeteries – $5 annually for every person interred who lived between January 1800 and January 1900.

This led to a wave of similar legislation in 2018, with five bills passing the General Assembly. Most of the bills focused on African-American cemeteries in specific locales – CharlottesvilleLoudoun County and Portsmouth. In addition,HB 284 will extend state funding to every African-American cemetery established before 1900 and allow the caretakers of those sites to receive maintenance funds from the state.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who introduced both pieces of legislation, said HB 284 was meant to clear up any ambiguities in HB 1547.

“This year,” McQuinn said, “we came back to say, ‘Let’s be clear: Localities have access to these funds.’”

Palmer remains ambivalent about the legislation; his group has made several attempts to reach out to and meet with McQuinn to discuss it in greater detail. In addition, Friends of East End Cemetery, a nonprofit organization, had applied to receive state funding under HB 1547 before HB 284 was filed, and a final decision from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is still pending.

Even without state support, members of the group remain focused on their work, a process of renewal where the number of volunteers can top 200, a donated wheelbarrow can be a huge boon and new discoveries are spotlighted on sites like FindAGrave.com.

Palmer first stepped into East End Cemetery in the summer of 2014 with his wife Erin while making a documentary. There, they encountered an armed hunting group who said they had permission to use the grounds. (Later, Palmer said he contacted the previous owner, who contradicted this claim.)

The following year, the Palmers joined in the volunteer efforts, helping to rediscover and archive the names of people buried there more than a century ago. State officials say East End Cemetery has nearly 4,900 graves that qualify for assistance and Evergreen has 2,100.

“We’ve had quite a few groups out here,” said John Shuck, a volunteer at East End and Evergreen since 2008. The two cemeteries have received help from college students, churches and Henrico County government. “Get people coming back out, you know, in ones and twos, but it all helps.”

Similar signs of progress are evident in Evergreen Cemetery, which covers more area than East End. Evergreen’s larger scale is matched by both the size of its volunteer force and signs of disrepair.

While the grounds are visited by both tour groups and mountain bikers, Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the EnRichmond Foundation, Evergreen’s new owner, emphasizes the work done so far remains “a shoestring operation.” Visitors can see support for that statement: A number of memorials are broken or obscured by overgrowth, and piles of decades-old detritus, collected by workers, line some of the paths in the lower areas of the cemetery.

Maris-Wolf, formerly a professor at Virginia Union University, Randolph-Macon College and the University of Louisiana, described the potential effect of extra revenue as a “game changer, not only for us but for all the cemeteries that will receive state funding.”

Before 2017, there were attempts in the General Assembly to provide equity in state support for graveyard maintenance, but they failed. However, success has come at the municipal level, thanks largely to community organizing.

In 2015, the city of Charlottesville gave $80,000 to the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery to support their work in the city-owned burial grounds. The group hopes to “restore the extant markers, to attempt to identify the many unknown burials and to share information about the known individuals buried at the historic cemetery,” alongside videos,audio tours and an active presence on social media.

“We are very encouraged by recent legislation to provide funding for the preservation” of their cemetery and other African-American burial grounds, the group wrote. “We are hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to tell their stories of our shared history.”

The struggle to maintain this aspect of Virginia has been long and fraught, even as the state’s black cemeteries remain unknown to most residents of the commonwealth.

Dr. Michael Blakey, an anthropologist and professor at the College of William & Mary, describes cemeteries as “the first archaeologically observable symbolic behavior, a language of memorialization, at the origins of Homo sapiens.”

“Thus, especially in slavery but for all people, cemeteries and mortuary ritual assert our humanity – human dignity – just as their desecration represents its denial.”

This is echoed by Dr. Lynn Rainville in a 2013 article published in the Journal of Field Archeology. Documenting her research into the topic in Albemarle County, Rainville described multiple black burial grounds throughout the area, neglected and overlooked due in part to housing development, racial shifts in local demographics leading to an absence in maintenance, vandalism and “inconsistencies in state laws.”

The result of this lack of care and gap in public awareness is evident even among the volunteers.

Robyn Young, along with her husband James Atkins and their daughter Cameron, continues to help reclaim East End as part of the Midlothian chapter of Jack & Jill of America. But she was struck by the fact “that I can’t find family members buried in these cemeteries for either of us,” despite being Richmond natives.

“I didn’t even know about this cemetery until today,” said Atkins, who has family buried at the nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Palmer has encountered this juxtaposition in occasional interactions with the public.

“We still talk to people that come through and do the ‘Tsk, tsk – it’s a shame that the black community can’t take care of this place,’” Palmer said.

“The black community, through its tax dollars, has been sustaining every Confederate monument on public property in this city.”

These problems persist at a time when Virginia’s relationship with its Confederate history has grown more contentious. Legislation seeking to remove memorials to the Confederacy has repeatedly failed, while efforts to find alternative solutions have been met with criticism and outrage.

More monuments are still to come. This summer, construction will likely begin at the state Capitol on the Virginia Women’s Memorial, which will feature Confederate Capt. Sally Louisa Tompkins among a racially diverse group of notable women.

Pastor Michele Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center, a group that works to spotlight and protect multiple burial grounds against corporate interests and obscurity, declared historic preservation to be “one of the key civil rights issues of our time, because it’s still governed under Jim Crow laws.”

“Separate but equal is more pronounced in death than it is in life, and you can see that clearly with these properties,” Thomas said. “And so when it is our society has not evolved in our law, we’ve not evolved as a society.”

Despite such obstacles, work on African-American cemeteries continues across Virginia. The EnRichmond Foundation has partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University and other organizations in developing new techniques to improve Evergreen for both visitors and those interred, while the Friends of East End Cemetery, with help from VCU and the University of Richmond, unveiled a digital mapping of the cemetery last month.

While Palmer and his fellow volunteers still see signs of disrespect of East End from time to time, there’s a clear joy in seeing the families of those laid to rest come to the site to help ensure their ancestors’ memories are acknowledged and maintained.

“It’s inspiring, most definitely,” Palmer said, “because I think it can be kind of easy to be overwhelmed, but when you see people actually investing energy and time ...”

Visiting her parents’ and grandparents’ graves for the first time since 1994, Doris Smith described the work done so far as “fantastic.”

“Last time we were here, we couldn’t even get back here, you couldn’t even see their graves,” Smith said. “I think it’s really beautiful that people are getting out, doing and keeping it up.”

The 5 Laws Focused on Virginia’s Historically African-American Cemeteries

At the start of the 2018 legislative session, members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates introduced five bills that would provide funding for the state’s historically African-American cemeteries. All five passed the General Assembly and have been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam.

This follows the passage in 2017 of a bill to assist two black cemeteries in Richmond and Henrico County. Until then, legislators regularly rejected attempts to address the unequal treatment of American-American grave sites and burial grounds in comparison to white-majority cemeteries and Confederate memorials.

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Field Archeology, Professor Lynn Rainville discusses this lack of equity: “Even though we have just elected an African-American president, our racially sensitive society unequally values the contributions of some individuals and communities. In the case of historical, black cemeteries, the voices of descendants and concerned residents are often ignored if a burial ground stands in the way of economic development or new construction. Conversely, it is taken as a given that ‘culturally valued’ graveyards, such as that of 19th-century presidents or white elites, will not be disturbed.”

In a statement sent to Capital News Service, a spokesperson for Northam echoed those sentiments and said the new laws “will help to expand upon the Commonwealth’s efforts to highlight, steward, and preserve additional African American cemeteries.”

Here are the new laws set to assist Virginia’s African-American cemeteries. All of them will take effect July 1:

  • House Bill 284, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. It adds any locality or person who owns an African-American cemetery established between January 1800 and January 1900 to the list of historic organizations qualified to receive funding for the preservation of the burial grounds. The cemetery owners may receive $5 for every person interred who lived between 1800 and 1900.
  • Senate Bill 198, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and HB 527, filed by Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth. These identical bills add Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth to the list of historic cemeteries qualified to receive funding.
  • HB 360, introduced by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. It adds the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville to the list.
  • SB 163, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. It adds the African-American Burial Ground in Belmont to the list.

Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the Evergreen Cemetery and the EnRichmond Foundation, reflecting on the swift passage of the bills through the General Assembly, said, “That was a great day, a tangible sign of progress.”

“These are sacred sites of history and memory, and for the state to help dignify them in that way, I think was an honor for everyone associated.”

Nonprofit Helps Virginia Maintain Lowest Recidivism Rate

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Over the past 14 years, Richard Walker went from dodging incarceration to running a volunteer organization aimed at helping other ex-offenders stay clean and out of prison. The efforts of groups like his are one reason Virginia has the nation’s lowest recidivism — or reoffense — rate for former inmates, state officials say.

The story of Bridging the Gap in Virginia began more than a decade ago.

“I had a substance abuse problem back then; this was in 2004,” Walker said. “I was a fugitive of justice from Henrico County. They arrested me at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’m hitting golf balls into a quarry in Prince George County after being on a two-day crack binge.”

After making bail at Riverside Regional Jail, Walker absconded to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was arrested for writing fraudulent checks.

Walker served time at a Virginia Department of Corrections camp in Halifax County. After re-entering society, he found that his criminal record kept him from landing jobs offered through the Richmond Career Advancement Center. Ultimately, he found work selling cars. 

"That was short-lived because I made good money and I hadn’t dealt with my drug problem,” Walker said. “I ended up going into treatment in 2006, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Within three years, Walker created a job for himself.

“We started in 2009 as a direct result of my incarceration,” Walker said. “I started Bridging the Gap in Virginia because I knew there were people with less experience, less credentials than I had, that were having a challenge in Virginia. When I found out the legislation and the laws in Virginia, it just motivated me to make changes.”

Charlotte Gomer, the public information officer for Attorney General Mark Herring, said re-entry programs like Walker’s are valuable resources for ex-offenders.

“Re-entry services have been proven to reduce crime, strengthen communities and ... can reduce violent reoffending by as much as 83 percent,” Gomer said. “The attorney general has made it a real priority to support re-entry, which is why he hired Virginia’s first full-time local jail re-entry coordinator to start and strengthen programs around the commonwealth.”

The efforts of Herring’s office and groups like Bridging the Gap in Virginia seem to be working. For the past two years, Virginia’s re-incarceration rate has been the lowest in the country among states for which data was available,according to the governor’s office.

About 22 percent of inmates released from the state’s prisons and jails end up re-incarcerated within three years. Virginia’s recidivism rate has fallen a full percentage point since the previous year. It’s the lowest among the 45 states that report three-year incarceration rates for felons. Nationally, more than two-thirds of convicted criminals reoffended in the past three years, according to the National Institute of Justice. 

Gainful employment is the key to helping ex-offenders re-enter society — and that is the main focus of Bridging the Gap in Virginia. Lawrence Bibbs III can vouch for that. The nonprofit helped him after he was released from prison on Aug. 29 after 30 years of incarceration.

“Since I’ve dealt with Bridging the Gap, each person has been a specialist in knowing how to focus your skill set into a specific area,” said Bibbs, who works for Amazon and owns a bricklaying company. “This situation where people are saying they can’t get a job — you just didn’t go to the right specialist that could employ you.”

Walker has several legislative allies. He has worked with Del. Delores McQuinn and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, both of Richmond, on issues pertaining to re-entry and criminal justice in general.

“I have always tried to work collaboratively with some organization or group to do that — looking at how do we provide a service to returning citizens so that there is a certain quality of life that they can expect as they exit the prison system,” McQuinn said.

McClellan said re-entry programs help not only ex-offenders but also the community.

“I support any efforts that remove barriers for returning felons resuming their lives,” McClellan said. “Once you get out of jail, if you can’t get a job, you’re more likely to do something to cause yourself to go back to jail.”

Walker, McQuinn and McClellan are behind legislation enabling former felons to find employment more easily.

The “Ban the Box” proposal seeks to remove questions about arrests and convictions from employment applications. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order that banned the box on state government applications.

During the General Assembly’s 2018 session, attempts to make that executive order a state law failed, although one bill cleared the Senate before dying in the House.

Even though there’s no state law, Walker said 16 cities and counties in Virginia have “banned the box” for ex-offenders.

“They have more of an opportunity to get a one-on-one interview with potential employers in various cities for city employment through ‘Ban the Box,’” Walker said. “People want to work; they don’t want to sit in squalor.”

Walker’s efforts extend beyond legislative changes. His organization also helps ex-convicts rebuild their lives through drug treatment, housing referrals and other services.

“God didn’t put me in here for me to give up, so I’m going to keep on doing what I do, believing that that million-dollar grant is sitting there waiting on me,” Walker said. 

Richmond Council Approves Funding for Apartment Targeting Artists

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Richmond City Council has agreed to issue $20 million in bonds to fund the development of 159 low-income housing units on Jefferson Davis Parkway – apartments aimed at appealing to artists.

The council unanimously passed a resolution Monday authorizing the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to issue the bonds. The money will help Richmond developer Tom Wilkinson renovate the American Tobacco building, at 716 Jefferson Davis Highway. The residential rental housing project will be known as Richmond ArtistSpace Lofts.

The resolution was sponsored by Councilwoman Reva Trammell, 8th District.

“This is something that is really going to restart the Jefferson Davis corridor,” Trammell said.

Wilkinson agreed.

“In 2015, the city of Richmond participated in a market study looking at housing for artists who don’t make millions of dollars a year, but make a living wage … There is a significant demand for that type of housing,” Wilkinson said. “Of the 150 units or so that will be there, roughly half of them will be targeted for artists.”

Wilkinson expects move-ins to begin this summer. He echoed Trammell’s optimism regarding the project’s impact on the surrounding area.

“We should be able to start putting people in the first 66 units in July, with the remaining 68 or 69 units available for occupancy in December,” Wilkinson said. “My belief is it will be an excellent way to get started with redevelopment for the Jeff Davis corridor.”

Richmond has a thriving community of artists, and that was reflected at Monday’s City Council meeting. Toni-Leslie James, director of costume design in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Theater, received an award for her work with students.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a costume tells much of the story,” Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, 2nd District, said in presenting the award to James. “You’re changing lives here in Richmond.”

James thanked Gray and other members of the council. “I don’t know what to say, except I am proud to reside here in Richmond,” she said.

Dr. King’s Speech ‘Changed My Life,’ Retired Sen. Marsh Says

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Retired Sen. Henry Marsh, the first black mayor of Richmond, saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1961.

“It brought tears to my eyes to see him in action,” Marsh recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Who is this man?’ I’ve been thinking one way, and he’s saying this crazy stuff about if somebody hits you, don’t hit them back, love them … That speech changed my life.”

Marsh reflected on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader during a discussion last week at Virginia Union University. The state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission is hosting such discussions around the commonwealth to document and memorialize visits that King made to Virginia before he was assassinated in 1968.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney opened the conversation at Virginia Union. The theme was “MLK Moving Forward.”

“I love the mission of the ‘King in Virginia’ project – to have these conversations about ‘where do we go next?’” Stoney said. “This is an opportunity to recognize those who continue to perpetuate his work each and every day.”

One of the panelists was the Rev. Jamar Boyd II of Saint Smyrna Baptist Church in Georgia. He is a member of the Georgia NAACP and a Virginia Union graduate.

“In 2018, the honest question is not where we are. It’s still, ‘Where do we go?’ It’s still, ‘What do we have to do?’” Boyd said. “It’s 2018, and you still have Jim Crow” in parts of Virginia.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said progress will depend on young adults like Boyd.

“It is up to young people to be equipped, to be the future drum majors of justice,” McQuinn said. “We need the youth to participate in the political process, through contact with their representatives and becoming officeholders themselves.”

Marsh echoed McQuinn’s statement about youth involvement but laid some blame on older generations as well.

“We need to energize young people, and we need to energize ourselves,” Marsh said. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves” for failing to participate in the political process.

Part of the discussion focused on how to create a beloved community” – King’s vision of a world of peace, equality and prosperity.

The Rev. James Somerville of Richmond’s First Baptist Church offered insight on how to get there.

“We have to believe that the beloved community is possible; I have to believe that the kingdom of heaven can come to Richmond, Virginia,” Somerville said. “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

Chuck Richardson, a former member of the Richmond City Council, was in the audience at Virginia Union. He drew a parallel between a nation and a family.

“Right now, America is without a father. This country is like a family, and that father in that White House is not on the job,” Richardson said. “Nothing that we do today is going to matter until we replace the father in the White House who is no father to the family of America.”

More about the MLK Roundtables

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission is inviting the public to remember King’s life and legacy in a series of roundtables being held in each of the Virginia communities that he visited.

The next event will be 6-8 p.m. on March 13 at Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Panelists will include:

  • Lehman Bates, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church
  • Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
  • Wesley Harris, who as a student in 1963 helped arrange King’s visit to Charlottesville
  • University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan
  • Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker

Discussions also have been scheduled in Farmville on April 24 and Williamsburg on June 6. The commission is planning to hold roundtables in Danville, Hampton, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg and Suffolk.

At Session’s Midpoint, Black Lawmakers Hail Success

Senators Rosalyn Dance, D- Richmond, and Louise Lucas, D- Chesapeake, discuss legislation at a VBLC press conference.

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – African-American lawmakers said Monday they have been successful this legislative session in addressing the problem of food deserts, funding apprenticeships for high school students and relaxing overly harsh school disciplinary policies.

At a press conference, members of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus said they generally are pleased with how the session has progressed as it enters the second half.

“In the House and Senate, we have seen legislation advanced to address the long overdue need for an increase in felony threshold so that people are not harmed for life for relatively small mistakes; stop the suspension of drivers’ licenses, which makes it even harder for people to pay for their fines and court fees; reduce the imposition of counterproductive school suspensions for younger students; and tax credits for businesses that train Richmond high school students for good jobs,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the caucus chair.

The lawmakers said they were pleased that several bills were moving forward:

  • SB 937 would provide a $2,500 tax credit to businesses offering apprenticeships for Richmond high school students. “Once that pilot is successful, we will expand it across the commonwealth because we realize that not everyone is going to college,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
  • HB 1600 would reduce the maximum school suspension from 364 days to 45 days with exceptions for aggravating circumstances. “We can’t continue to use access to education as punishment and expect to change the outcomes for our young people,” said Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. “This is just one important step in dismantling and disrupting the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
  • SB 37 would fund construction and improvements of grocery stores and food retailers in underserved communities known as food deserts. Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said the bill would help prevent diabetes, heart disease and other health problems related to diet.
  • HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise the threshold for grand larceny – a felony crime – from $200 to $500. The current threshold hasn’t been changed since 1980.

“You just don’t know how many kids and college students, as a part of a dare, or pressure from peer groups go and commit dumb mistakes,” said Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk. He said young people convicted of felony theft under the existing threshold suffer lifelong consequences “keeping them away from the ballot box, keeping them away from business opportunities, keeping them away from educational opportunities.”

Despite those legislative successes, caucus members expressed disappointment about the fate of bills such as SB 909. It would have made it illegal in the housing industry to discriminate against people based on their “source of income,” including whether they receive government assistance. A Senate committee voted to put off the bill until next year.

“When I talk about low-income housing, I’m also talking about middle-class housing for our firefighters, our police officers, our teachers that too often can’t afford to live in the communities that they serve,” McClellan said.

House Considers Allowing Guns in Places of Worship

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After a committee endorsed the proposal on a party-line vote, the House of Delegates is considering legislation to allow people to bring guns and knives into a place of worship in Virginia.

Delegates are scheduled to vote this week on House Bill 1180, which would repeal the state’s ban against carrying weapons into a house of worship while religious services are being held.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, said he is sponsoring this bill on behalf of concerned churchgoers.

“Recent shootings in churches have leaders across the country reevaluating their security plans in places of worship,” LaRock said, referring to church attacks in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina.

The existing law states, “If any person carry any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

At a meeting of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee last week, LaRock said the law is ambiguous.

“The statute restricts those in charge of places of worship from exercising full control over their own private property,” LaRock said. “By repealing this law, we will remove a barrier to churches forming plans to protect and defend their establishments against malicious attacks.”

Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League testified in support of the bill. He said the current law “is forcing pacifism, if you will, on churches. It’s taking away their ability to do certain ceremonial things.”

Representatives of faith communities disagreed. Bryan Walsh spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“Faith leaders we have spoken with, and members of our community, don’t feel that this bill makes places of worship any safer,” Walsh said. “We want our places of worship to be places of peace, not violence.”

Amanda Silcox, who also works at the center, echoed Walsh’s testimony, stating, “We believe places of worship should be safe havens for people, not places of violence.”

LaRock said HB 1180 will not invite violence in houses of worship. “Repealing this bill will do nothing more than to allow the formation of sensible security plans for places of worship and the best way to avoid disaster is to plan and prepare,” he said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said he saw no need for LaRock’s legislation.

“If a law is working just fine, and there aren’t really any problems with the law, we should just leave it alone,” Simon said.

Lori Haas, a lobbyist for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, requested more time for public reaction to the bill, which was filed on Jan. 10.

“There are many, many, many members of faith communities across the commonwealth who might have an opinion about this bill, might want to express their support or opposition to the bill,” Haas said.

Despite her plea, the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 in favor of HB 1180, sending the bill to the full House. The Republicans on the panel voted unanimously for the measure; the Democrats voted against it.

Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Civil Rights Giant, Dies

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a civil rights icon who worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Tuesday morning at an assisted-living facility in Chester, south of Richmond.

Numerous public officials, including Virginia’s two U.S. senators, expressed their condolences over the death of Wyatt, whoraised heaven as pastor at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg and hell as a civil rights activist.

“The Commonwealth and our country are a better place because of his leadership in the struggle for civil rights,” Sen. Mark Warner said. Sen. Tim Kaine called Wyatt “a man I’ve known and admired for many years.”

Wyatt’s death at age 88 was announced by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who described him as “atrue giant and irreplaceable leader.”

Added the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “One of the tallest trees of the civil rights movement has fallen.”

Walker was born to the Rev. John Wise and Maude Pinn Walker, both graduates of Virginia Union University, on Aug. 16, 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts. He grew up in a home full of books but struggling with poverty during the Great Depression.

In 1950, Walker followed his parents’ path to Virginia Union University, receiving Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1953. Soon after, he moved to Petersburg.

During his seven-year tenure at Gillfield Baptist, Walker vitalized the struggle for civil rights in that city south of Richmond. He served as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded the Petersburg Improvement Association and sued the city in federal court for access to the public but segregated swimming pool in Lee Park. The city responded by temporarily closing the pool rather than integrate it.

For his efforts, Walker was arrested 17 times. He had many notable achievements, including the desegregation of lunch counters at restaurants at the bus terminal.

In 1958, Walker co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality and served as its state director.

In 1960, Walker moved to Alabama at King’s behest. Serving as the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1960 to 1964, he improved the organization’s fundraising, structure, strategy and publicity.

Discussing his leadership in the SCLC, Walker once described himself as someone “who didn’t care about being loved to get it done – I didn’t give a damn about whether people liked me, but I knew I could do the job.’’

After resigning from the SCLC in 1964, Walker became vice president and then president of the Negro Heritage Library, a publishing venture aimed at increasing black history and literature in public school curriculums. He also became pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem.

King spoke to Walker’s congregation in 1968, describing him as ‘‘a tall man – tall in stature, tall in courage.’’

At the church in Harlem, Walker hosted numerous African leaders active in opposing apartheid and colonization of the continent, including Nelson Mandela.

Walker was no stranger to danger. He braved constant threats campaigning for civil rights in the Jim Crow south and continued daring death in Harlem, campaigning and preaching against the drug trade. The mobster Frank Lucas once allegedly put a bounty on Wyatt’s head.

After suffering a stroke in 2004, Walker left Canaan Baptist and moved back to Virginia to live near relatives. Walker is survived by his wife of 68 years, Theresa Edwards Walker; his daughter, Patrice Powell; three sons – Robert, Earl, and Wyatt Jr.; his sister, Mary Holley; and two granddaughters.

Democrats Roll Out Voting Rights Agenda

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators are pushing for a package of bills to make it easier for Virginians to vote, including proposals to let people register on Election Day and to cast an absentee ballot for any reason.

Del. Debra Rodman of Henrico County has introduced House Bill 449, which would repeal the deadline for registering to vote before an election. Instead, eligible voters could register at any time, including the day of the election.

“I am critically proud for this opportunity, all of these opportunities, that will allow Virginians true access to the ballot,” Rodman said. “Knowledge and access are imperative to the evolution of our democracy.”

So far, Democrats in the House and Senate have filed about 45 bills and a half-dozen constitutional amendments to expand voting rights. They include:

  • HB 835, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby of Henrico County. It would eliminate the requirement to state a reason in order to vote absentee in person. A registered voter still would have to provide a qualified excuse, such as illness or a long work schedule, to vote absentee by mail.
  • HB 1079, by Del. Delores McQuinn of Richmond. It would repeal the requirement that voters show a photo identification at the polls to get a ballot. Democrats say that requirement is an obstacle for low-income, elderly and minority voters.
  • HB 944, by Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote. “Helping young Virginians and Americans register to vote increases the odds that they will make a lifelong habit of electoral participation,” Lopez said.

House Joint Resolution 33, a constitutional amendment proposed by Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections.

On some voting-related issues, Democrats and Republicans share common ground. Members of both parties, for example, want to make it easier for members of the U.S. military to vote.

Del. Steven Landes, a Republican from Augusta County, has introduced HB 1139, which would create a pilot program for military personnel who are registered to vote in Virginia and are deployed overseas to cast an electronic ballot.

Del. Kathy Tran, a Democrat from Fairfax, has a similar measure – HB 1058.

“This is a very valuable and worthwhile investment for the people on the frontlines defending our values and right to vote,” said Tran, whose brother, David, serves in the U.S. Marine Corps.

But generally, Republicans are more focused on ballot security and voting integrity. Many Republican lawmakers believe that voter fraud is a serious problem.

Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg is sponsoring Senate Bill 523, which would require the state to create electronic poll books with photos of registered voters. Poll workers would use those books to verify who can vote. The General Assembly passed such a bill last year, but then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

Moreover, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County has filed SB 834, which would require the Virginia Department of Elections to identify people who are registered to vote not only in Virginia but also in another state.

Democrats may face an uphill battle advancing their agenda in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a majority in both chambers.

On Tuesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee killed several Democratic proposals.

On a party-line vote, the committee spiked SB 452, an attempt by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, to rescind the requirement to show a photo ID at the polling place. All eight Republicans on the panel voted to shelve the bill; all six Democrats voted to keep it alive.

Also, the committee killed two proposed constitutional amendments to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their time. One of the amendments was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth; the other was by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County.

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