The Virginia Board of Education has delayed its review of state standards for history and social studies — a process that it is required to undertake every seven years. The nine-member board is now dominated by appointees of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned on rooting out critical race theory from schools and offering parents an anonymous tip line to report anything they deem to be suspicious taking place in the classroom.
This politicization of history education and the demonization of history teachers will probably have a profound impact on the now-delayed review. The 2022 History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOLs) will shape what Virginia students learn about their Commonwealth’s past.
Regardless of what the board approves as the final version, it won’t include one of the most important chapters in Virginia’s history. Just after Reconstruction, between 1879 and 1883, Virginia was governed by a biracial party known as the Readjusters. During this brief period, African Americans assumed positions of significant political power at every level of local and state government decades before the legal restrictions and violence of Jim Crow slammed the doors shut for decades. This history offers an important reminder during our own time of deep political division that political coalitions that transcend class, race and political party are possible even during the most tumultuous times.
The central political question for Virginian leaders at this time was what to do about the state’s massive debt, incurred even before the war. Conservative elements proposed paying it off in full, but [William] Mahone and others advocated “readjustment downward” or paying off part of the debt, which would leave state funds for public schools and other projects. In the 1879 state elections, Mahone helped to steer his Readjuster Party to victory, winning 56 out of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 24 of 50 senators. With a majority of Readjusters in the General Assembly, Mahone was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he caucused with the Republican Party. In the process, Mahone helped forge a powerful biracial coalition that controlled the state for the next four years.