APPOMATTOX, Va. (CN) — When you enter the county of Appomattox a giant sign welcomes you with a message: “Where our nation reunited.” It’s a message many argue looks good in giant letters but fails to accurately represent those who were oppressed at the hands of the losing side of the American Civil War which ended over 150 years ago this month. While the Confederacy might have surrendered in Appomattox, its legacy has long been ingrained in every part of Virginia.
As the nation continues to struggle with its racist past, in the last year alone the state which once housed the Confederacy’s capital has seen some of the greatest changes since Appomattox and General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
Post-war Reconstruction opened the door to Black equality, which was later quashed by Jim Crow-era lawmaking. The civil rights movement of the 60s addressed some of the structural issues that philosophy created, but between the removal of statues, changes in laws and a shift in community thinking thanks in part to the massively televised death of George Floyd, the Lost Cause narrative of Southern heroism is arguably at its lowest point since its historical demise.
“I know there’s an issue with race that’s always been here,” said Joetricia Humbles, a lifelong Appomattox resident and co-organizer of Appomattox for Equality, a group which sprung up in the wake of Floyd’s death and the protests which swept the country --- yes, even in Appomattox --- early last summer.
Humbles, now in her 40s and with a family of her own, remembers how hollow that “reunited” message rang when she was growing up in the sleepy rural community. There were parts of the county her family wasn’t welcome in because of the color of their skin, and the Ku Klux Klan would march through the town of Appomattox’s main drag.
But there were efforts to share the stories of those oppressed. Pastor Alfred L. Jones III, a local historian and Past Emeritus at the Appomattox Jesus Center Church, said he remembers efforts by the National Park Association who manages the Appomattox Court House National Park where Lee signed the surrender documents. Similarly the American Civil War Museum, formerly known as the Museum of the Confederacy until less than a decade ago, has worked to include Black stories.
“They’ve always had the African American story,” he said in defense of the long-running historical institutions, but he noted the county and town of Appomattox itself has been less eager to lose its Confederate past.
“I don’t see any Emancipation Boulevard,” Jones says, noting there’s still a Confederate Boulevard lining the town’s main street.
“There’s little things, and most people never pay attention to it,” he said. “Where are the monuments for the victors, for the emancipated people?”
Civil War monuments are undoubtedly among the former Confederacy’s most visual legacies. Their removal nationwide and in Virginia has made headlines, but the rolling back of a state law in 2020 empowered localities to remove them, opening the flood gates for their demise.
It was a new Democratic trifecta which allowed for that law to change, but it wouldn’t be the only law rooted in the state's racist past on the chopping block. During the recent 2021 session, the state ended the death penalty, legalized small amounts of marijuana possession and rolled back voting restrictions put in place by a GOP majority less than a decade ago.
Some Black female legislators went even further and expanded access to the polls, making Virginia a new gold standard for voting rights.