One of the youngest members of the Virginia House of Delegates received a standing ovation Thursday after delivering a deeply personal floor speech detailing his family’s experiences with racism and urging colleagues to respond to the state’s blackface scandals by working to “address the chasm between black Virginia and white Virginia.”
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, 29, said he was speaking only for himself as he rose to talk about the “deep wounds” opened in recent weeks as the state grapples with the fallout from the controversies over a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page and Attorney General Mark Herring’s admission that he wore blackface in 1980 at the University of Virginia.
Jones said he has been wrestling with several emotions in the past few weeks. But not the surprise others have voiced upon learning that blackface and other forms of racism were still happening in the 1980s.
“That surprise has been a luxury to many Virginians, most of them white,” Jones said. “For many of us in this chamber, and millions of people across this country, the events that have gripped Virginia aren’t an aberration, an abstraction, or an anachronism. They aren’t a unit in a history textbook.”
A lawyer from a family of politicians and educators, Jones is the grandson of Hilary H. Jones Sr., a civil rights pioneer and the first African-American member of the Norfolk School Board. His father, Norfolk Circuit Judge Jerrauld C. Jones, held the same seat in the House from 1988 to 2002.
But Jones said his family’s path in Virginia wasn’t easy. They struggled to gain access to majority-white schools and institutions. When his father and his uncles integrated a Norfolk elementary school in 1960, Jones said, they were met with racial slurs.
As the son of the state delegate, Jones said, he “vividly recalls” a racist incident from his childhood involving another lawmaker’s spouse at a General Assembly retreat, where he was playing with other children.
“As we played, our group was approached by a legislator’s significant other who looked at me and then told her little girl: ‘Don’t play with him, he’s black,’ ” Jones said. “Although as a young boy I may not have gotten it then, but I certainly get it now. And it still stays with me.”
Jones didn’t reference Northam or Herring directly. He said his family taught that it believes in “second chances and forgiveness.”
Black Virginia, Jones said, fears the police and suffers under “vestiges of Jim Crow in our legal system,” endures the casual racism of yearbook mockery and “looks skeptically at white Virginia because of the generations past.”
White Virginia, Jones said, has never had to face the same “cultural and institutional barriers” and hasn’t fully reckoned with its legacy of Massive Resistance, glorification of the Confederacy and “other mechanisms which consciously or unconsciously attempted to demonstrate its power over black Virginians.”
“I have faith that we can make the tough choice — to tackle our history head on and move forward together to heal and reconcile,” Jones said. “It is what my grandparents and parents have wished that we do for decades. As a young black man in this fractured commonwealth, I will do all I can to make sure that their dream — our dream — comes true.”
The speech drew applause from both sides of the aisle, and several lawmakers went to speak with Jones privately afterward.
Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, another young legislator who joined the House in 2018 as part of the same class as Jones, hugged her friend.
“His speech was absolutely incredible,” Brewer said in an interview. “I think life experiences make us who we are and how we represent constituents.”
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, joked: “We’ve been holding Jay back for a while.”