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A night for history

VBA, ODBA meet together for first time, ex-governors honored

PosterThe Virginia Bar Association and the Old Dominion Bar Association made history in late January, as the two bar groups held their annual meetings together for the first time.

And at the black-tie banquet Jan. 24 at the Williamsburg Lodge, the sense of history – both for the bar groups and for the Commonwealth of Virginia at large – enveloped the proceedings.

VBA President Thomas R. Bagby was the man behind the inclusion of the ODBA in the VBA confab.

ODBA President Vinceretta Chiles lauded Bagby for reaching out to her and her association.

She observed from the podium that the ODBA was started by black lawyers because the statewide bars would not allow them to be members.

“We were not included, we were not involved and we were not at the table,” she said.

But as Bagby pursued his agenda of inclusion and reached out to Chiles and others, she said she thought of the ODBA founders – men such Oliver W. Hill Sr. and Samuel Tucker – who worked “to get us to a point where a Tom Bagby would say, ‘We need to have you at the table.’”

The weight of history and race and the spirit of seeking to move forward together also were present in the remarks of former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who presented the VBA’s Distinguished Service Award to two former governors, Linwood Holton and L. Douglas Wilder.

In 1969, Holton was the first Republican elected governor in Virginia since Reconstruction. Baliles observed that Holton had opposed Massive Resistance – “the state’s pernicious anti-desegregation strategy” – from the time he entered politics.
When he was inaugurated, Holton declared, famously, “The era of defiance is behind us.”

And when Holton sent his daughters to a predominately black school in Richmond, the picture of the new governor and his child was on the front page of the New York Times.

It “signaled the emergence of a new Virginia,” Baliles said. He added as an aside that one of those two girls – Anne Holton – grew up to be the first lady of Virginia and as of last month, Secretary of Education.

Another picture from Richmond that made the front page of the Times was taken 20 years later, when Wilder, the first African-American elected governor of any state, took office.

“Unity, not division, was the Wilder theme” on inauguration day in 1990, as the new leader, the grandson of slaves, proudly proclaimed, “I am a son of Virginia.”

Wilder had been the first African-American elected to the Virginia Senate in 1969, the same year that Holton prevailed in the gubernatorial race.

Wilder worked his way through Virginia Union University, waiting tables at restaurants “where he was otherwise unwelcome because of his race” and “where he would later be celebrated as Virginia’s chief executive,” Baliles noted.

Inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board, Wilder went to law school, but he attended Howard University in Washington, because “Virginia law schools [were] all still segregated.”

In presenting the Distinguished Service Award that bears his name, Baliles recalled the Holton’s inaugural address: “We must see that no citizen of the Commonwealth is excluded from full participation in both the blessings and the responsibilities of our society…we will have a partnership based on partnership of all Virginians.”

Baliles said, “[N]one of us – and certainly not Gov. Holton or Gov. Wilder – would argue that we’ve achieved, as a state or as a nation, that perfect society in which all people are treated fairly and equally, and the dignity of all is respected.

“Many obstacles remain, but it’s well to pause tonight and reflect on the linked histories of Linwood Holton and Doug Wilder, whose commitment and contributions should be an inspiration to all who labor on that path,” he concluded.

Addressing the crowd, Holton called the award a “great source of satisfaction,” and he recalled that prior to moving into the Governor’s Mansion, friends would ask, “Are you really going to let your children go to those schools?”

He noted that some years later, at the dedication of the Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond, his daughter Tayloe surveyed the crowd, and said to her mother, “Thank you, Mom, for giving us a chance to do something outside ourselves.”

Wilder recalled his efforts to get a colleague accepted as the first black member of the Richmond Bar Association and later, another black lawyer into membership in the VBA.

With the evening’s festivities and the efforts at inclusion, “You can’t begin to understand how much it means to those of us who have been there,” he said.

“With this renaissance, this period of understanding, this opening of doors, to believing that, you know, we can achieve, we can move forward,” Wilder said.

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