We are one of five nations that observe an official day of giving thanks. If that question ever comes up during a trivia contest, you can win by knowing the other four: Canada, Grenada, Liberia and Saint Lucia, although not all celebrate it on the same day.
Each family has its own things to be thankful for. Here are some things that all of us in the western third of the state can be thankful for.
- Most of us are vaccinated. We spend so much time lamenting how low the vaccination rates are in some localities – and we have to confess, even in our most-vaccinated localities they are still way too low – that it’s easy to forget the success stories we’ve seen. Thanksgiving is a time for looking at the glass half full, so let’s raise a toast with that half-full glass. In that spirit, let’s recognize all the localities in Southwest and Southside where more than half the population is vaccinated. That’s easy to do because it’s almost all of them.
Here are the 10 highest. The left-hand column shows the percentage of the total population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine; the right-hand column shows the percentage of the adult population that has reached that mark. I’ve ranked these based on percentage of the total population, but if you went by percentage of the adult population, the rankings would vary slightly, with Martinsville being the second-most vaccinated in Southwest or Southside.
We have nine localities that fall short of having half the total population vaccinated but do have more than half the adult population vaccinated. In descending order, Franklin County (49.7% of total population vaccinated, but 58.1% of adults vaccinated), Bland County, Dinwiddie County, Lynchburg, Wythe County, Tazewell County, Grayson County, Prince Edward County and Craig County (45.2% of total population vaccinated, 52.4% of adults vaccinated).
We only have three localities that don’t cross the 50% threshold in either category: Carroll County, Lee County and Patrick County.
You can look up vaccination rates for every locality in the state on the Virginia Department of Health covid dashboard.
2. We don’t have one party drawing new legislative lines. The redistricting commission was regarded as a great failure because it couldn’t agree on much of anything and now the task of redistricting gets kicked up to the Virginia Supreme Court. But the commission remains successful in this regard: Without it, we’d have one party drawing new legislative maps, and the redistricting commission process showed us just how partisan (i.e., bizarre) some of those could be. Remember the maps that would have split Lynchburg between two congressional districts for no good reason? Or the ones that would have taken a bizarre bite out of Roanoke County? Those won’t be happening now. Furthermore, given this month’s House elections, we’d have faced the prospect where Democrats might have drawn one set of lines and incoming Republicans might have drawn another. Partisans on both sides might not like the commission (and its partisan gridlock), but partisans on both sides might also want to contemplate what would have happened if the other side had the sole power to redraw districts. Now do you see why you should be thankful? (The Supreme Court justices, now tasked with the job, might not agree!)
3. Our school boards are not embarrassing us. Some in the urban crescent sure are. We all know about Loudoun County; ’nuff said there. But recently the Spotsylvania County School Board decided to get in on the act, ordering staff to remove books that board members considered “sexually explicit.” Now, I’m sure not going to get into an argument over what’s explicit and what’s not. Let’s just not inquire too deeply into what’s really going on in “Romeo and Juliet,” shall we? Shakespeare makes it quite clear that Juliet is 13 – “hath not seen the change of fourteen years” – and Romeo’s probably not sneaking into her room to help her with her homework. But there’s a big difference between cleansing the shelves of “objectionable” material and what some Spotsylvania board members are talking about. From the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star:
Two board members, Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, said they would like to see the removed books burned.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said, and Twigg said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”
Really? You’re talking about burning books? Will “Fahrenheit 541” be allowed or consigned to the flames, as well? Let’s just be thankful that this book-burning nonsense is coming from a supposedly enlightened suburban county and not some rural county in Southwest or Southside, because we all know how the national media would portray that, don’t we?
4. Rural voters get their moment. Not everyone likes the election results; nobody ever does, but here’s one undeniable “plus” for Southwest and Southside in this year’s election: The tallies showed how much rural voters matter. Without an unexpectedly large turnout from rural Virginia, Glenn Youngkin would not be the next governor. Politically, that means Youngkin owes a debt to rural voters. How will that get redeemed? That’s a question for 2022 and beyond, but for now it means the western third of the state has some rare leverage in the state capital. It also means Democrats may finally start to pay more attention to this side of the state. That’s a good thing, even if you’re a Republican. We can all be thankful that our issues might get more attention in Richmond than they might otherwise have gotten.
5. We have more dark sky parks. A “dark sky park” is one that has been officially certified as being dark enough to see stars at night at astronomical-level clarity. Going into this year, Virginia had two – in Staunton River State Park in Halifax County and James River State Park in Buckingham County. This year we gained three more: Sky Meadows in Fauquier County, Rappahannock County Park in Rappahannock County and Natural Bridge State Park in Rockbridge County. We’re headed into winter, which is actually the best time to see the stars at night – lack of humidity and all that. Bundle up and look up.
6. We had baseball this year. We didn’t in 2020, of course, at least not at the minor league level, which is what we have. Yes, the minor leagues got revamped by Major League Baseball. As part of that, the Appalachian League – whose Virginia teams include Bluefield, Bristol, Danville and Pulaski – was demoted from a professional rookie league to a summer league for college players. Did fans care? Apparently not in some places. Bristol saw average attendance soar from 586 in 2019 to 1,187 in 2021. Bluefield rose from 674 to 717, Danville went from 909 in 2019 to 990 in 2021. Only Pulaski saw attendance dip – from 2,821 to 2,389 – but Pulaski’s attendance is more than twice the attendance of most teams in that league. In fact, Pulaski’s attendance is higher than that of the Salem Red Sox (2,146) and the Lynchburg Hillcats (1,134), both of whom are in bigger cities and higher leagues
7. Hockey is back. Roanoke is unusual in many ways. Here’s a Southern city that never had a classic Confederate monument outside its courthouse, which has spared the city much grief in recent years. Here’s a white majority city on the edge of Appalachia with a Black majority on the city council – indeed, there’s only one straight white man on the seven-member council (and most of those council members were endorsed for election by the city’s main business lobby). Here’s a city that elected Virginia’s first Muslim state legislator (Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke) and still doesn’t think that’s particularly noteworthy. But here’s the way we’ll recognize today: The Roanoke Valley, unlike most Southern cities, has a long history of ice hockey, dating back to the Salem Rebels in 1967. The current team, the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, skipped last season due to the pandemic but now is back on the ice. Here’s something Roanoke has that Richmond doesn’t. So take that, preferably in the form of a hard body check up against the corner glass.
8. Sweet Briar College is still here and thriving. We’re now six years removed from the board’s attempt to shut down the women’s college in Amherst County. Not only is Sweet Briar still around but enrollment is up – this fall the school enrolled its biggest incoming class since 2013, boosting total enrollment to 475. The school has also diversified its student body. At the time of the attempted closure, Sweet Briar had just a single foreign student, and she’d found the school on her own, not through part of any international recruitment effort. Now Sweet Briar boasts students from 17 countries. And, perhaps most important of all, for the third year in a row, S&P Global Ratings has raised the school’s bond rating. We now have six years of evidence now that Sweet Briar was never in quite the dire financial straits the old board said it was. That’s certainly something to be thankful for.
9. A free tuition program for Martinsville and Henry County. Three years ago the Harvest Foundation in Martinsville launched a pilot program to pay the tuition costs for any high school graduate in Martinsville or Henry County who wanted to go to the local community college. The Martinsville Bulletin reports: “Since the inception of the program, the first two cohorts of SEED students are completing college at a rate that is double the national average for community college students.” This year, the Harvest Foundation did more than double down on this program, it – well, I don’t even know how to express the number. How about this: The foundation announced it will extend this program for 13 years. That means any student entering kindergarten now has a guaranteed path to community college – this in a community where educational attainment rates lag behind the rest of the state and the country. This is a bold, generational bet. People in Martinsville and Henry County can be thankful for this not just this year but for 13 years – and more – to come.
10. More trains are coming. Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a major upgrade in passenger rail service: The Amtrak route through Lynchburg and Roanoke would be getting a second train, and service would be extended to Christiansburg. It may be 2025 before the trains start running to Christiansburg – lots of infrastructure work is needed beforehand. But that second train through Lynchburg and Roanoke could start coming as early as March 2022, and will include the much-sought stop in Bedford. Next up, passenger service to Bristol?
11. You’ve supported journalism for Southwest and Southside. I’d be remiss in this list of things to be thankful for if I didn’t give thanks for you. You’re reading this. And many of you who are reading us are also helping support us with your donations. We set out to provide in-depth journalism for and about two parts of the state that were journalistically underserved. In less than two months, we’ve built a base of readers not just across Southwest and Southside but across Virginia. We often hear from readers in Richmond and Northern Virginia. Those readers – who just happen to be in the most politically connected parts of the state – are now getting a perspective of Southwest and Southside they didn’t see before, stories about what matters in the western third of the state. None of this would be possible without your support. Our content is available free, but it’s not free to produce. If you’d like to see more journalism about Southwest and Southside, you can help make that possible here.