Winsome Sears is a trailblazer
Americans should celebrate her accomplishment
A few years ago, I took my three children and several of their cousins on a short field trip to the Number 18 Schoolhouse in my hometown of Marshall, Va. This modest one room building with white siding and a chimney was the segregated school my father and his siblings attended. At my urging, my father explained to his grandchildren how he and the other black students had to arrive extra early in the winter to get the woodstove going so they would have heat.
My purpose in this visit wasn’t for my children to feel sorry for their grandfather—he has nothing but happy memories of that school. It was rather to give them an understanding of just how far our family has come and a sense of gratitude for all the opportunities they could easily take for granted.
America has come a long way in just a few decades. We have fought hard against racism, and won freedoms and equality for black Americans. There’s still work to do, of course. But we can and should appreciate every victory.
To me, that means celebrating the generation of leaders today who advance the cause of black excellence. Winsome Sears is one of those leaders, and her election as the first black female lieutenant governor of Virginia is just another illustration of the incredible progress we are making on race relations. Our nation should be thankful, and her unlikely victory is just the most recent reason I am proud and grateful to be a native Virginian.
Virginia has a strange and interesting history with regard to race. The colony was founded by aristocratic planters and hosted the infamous 1619 slave sale in Jamestown. General Robert E. Lee, who attended high school in my native Fauquier County, reportedly fought for the Confederacy because he couldn’t bring himself to take up arms against Virginia. In 1956, the Virginia legislature called for “massive resistance” to the federal mandate to desegregate its public schools.
But Virginia also gave rise to Robert Carter III, the “First Emancipator” who freed over 500 black slaves from his plantation—the largest act of manumission before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It was also the first state in the country to elect a black governor, and was home to history makers like international businessman Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Union spy Mary Elizabeth Bowser and tennis superstar Arthur Ashe. My own grandfather, armed with just a third-grade education, was able to accumulate over 70 acres of what is now prime real estate in Fauquier County, and my aunt became the first black woman to serve on the city council.
I grew up bagging groceries at the Safeway in Middleburg, Va., frequented by wealthy families who kept and rode horses, but just a few years later, I would graduate from the University of Virginia. A couple weeks ago, Winsome Sears and I met with the Honorable Kay Coles James, who grew up in Richmond public housing and went on to lead the Heritage Foundation.
The location was the world-class Salamander Spa and Resort, built by visionary black billionaire Sheila Johnson. Where else in the world are so many people able to improve upon the circumstances of their birth so rapidly? Winsome Sears is a part of this tradition of black accomplishment in Virginia. I was privileged to spend some time with Lt. Gov.-elect Sears during her campaign and transition. While some complain that we make too much of the first black person to do this or that, it is important to remember it takes a great deal of courage to do something that no one else like you has ever done. What’s more, every success story has a big impact on the lives of others. When Gov. Doug Wilder won his election, black Virginians went from second-class citizens by law to holding the highest office in the Commonwealth. And now, 27 years after Gov. Doug Wilder’s historic achievement, Sears has broken barriers for both black women and the Virginia GOP.
There are those who would look at the segregated school my dad attended, or the fact that there was a restaurant in our town that refused service to blacks well into the 1980s, with a sense only of resentment about opportunities missed. But my siblings and I were raised to regard the house we lived in, the schools we attended, and our eventual families and careers with profound gratitude. Despite historic and even recent obstacles, black Virginians have thrived for generations. Winsome Sears is a part of that history, and all Americans should celebrate her victory.
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