Linwood Holton with his parents, Edith and Abner Holton, in Big Stone Gap in the 1960s. Courtesy of Holton family.

When Linwood Holton stepped onto the portico of the state Capitol on a cold Saturday morning in January 1970, taking his oath as the commonwealth’s 61st governor, he wasn’t just the first Republican since Reconstruction to assume this office. He also was only the 7th with roots in Southwest Virginia. 

As Holton, who died in October aged 98, on his first day in office made history by turning the page on race relations, declaring that the period of Massive Resistance was over in Virginia, it was his upbringing in the Southwest that had calibrated his moral compass and shaped his sense of justice, righteousness, and his unequivocal love for the natural beauty of the commonwealth that he worked hard to protect and preserve. 

“The era of defiance is behind us,” Holton famously said in his inaugural address that day. “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.” And to Holton, these were not just mere words. Shortly after, he appointed several African-Americans to significant positions in his administration, including Bill Robertson, a Black educator and elementary school principal from Roanoke, whom he tapped as special assistant to the governor and as liaison to Virginia’s Black community. 

While later in his life Holton lived in Kilmarnock near the mouth of the Rappahannock River, and although his memorial will be held at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond this Sunday, adjacent to Capitol Square and to Virginia’s Executive Mansion that he called home for four years, he was very much a child of Southwest Virginia and a child of Appalachia, said his son-in-law, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. “That was what he was, from his first day to his last, in the stories that he would tell, in the accent that he retained,” Kaine said in a recent interview with Cardinal News. 

Holton’s upbringing in the small town of Big Stone Gap, in the far southwestern corner of the commonwealth, was “absolutely critical to his moral view about the equality of every person and his role as a civil rights champion in Virginia,” Kaine said.

Born in 1923 to Edith and Abner Holton, an executive at a small coal-hauling railroad, Holton spent his childhood in Appalachia where he learned to get the perspective of small town life and resourcefulness, his daughter Anne Holton said. “Dad told lots of stories over the years about all his different gardening and livestock adventures, which was a very normal thing to be doing in that community,” Holton said in an interview. 

Young Linwood raised chickens and a pig, and with his father he planted trees that they later made into furniture. “The small town way of growing up was very much a part of who he was, and it played a role in his view on politics too,” his daughter said. “But I think more fundamentally just what it means to be growing up in a close-knit community, and his parents were very active in the Presbyterian church there, that was a very important part of his upbringing.”

The Holton family dog, Rex. Courtesy of Holton family.

The Holtons took the Presbyterian teachings very seriously.  “Church wasn’t just where you showed up on Sunday morning, but it was very much a part of his and his family’s world, and what they trained us to be,” Anne Holton said. When she was a young adult, Holton said her father gave her a Bible, with the Good Samaritan story underlined, dotted with notes about how much this parable meant to him. “To my family, this wasn’t just a theoretical thing, what they took from the gospel was ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ and a very broad definition of who one’s neighbor is. And this made my dad who he was.”

Southwest Virginia at the time was located outside the nucleus of the Byrd Organization, the political machine of the Democratic Party, led by former Governor and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd for much of the first half of the 20th century. With very few plantations, and few cotton and tobacco fields before the Civil War, slavery was almost absent from the westernmost parts of the state. Not surprisingly, young Linwood Holton did not grow up in a racially diverse environment. 

“There weren’t a lot of African-Americans in his life, and when he met any, they were all people that he would have gotten to know because they were working as servants or in other roles that were subservients,” his daughter Anne said. “But he did get to know a handful of people in that way and understood them partly because of the way his parents raised him as human beings and people entitled to respect, and he saw that they didn’t always get it.”

Growing up, Holton also noticed that people from Appalachia were looked at differently by people from other parts of the state. “He may have come at it initially with thinking of Southwesterners as the outsiders, but then came to understand that there were others who were outside of power and outside of the workings of democracy,” Holton said. 

Eventually, Holton connected the disrespect and discrimination against Black Americans with what he believed were people’s discriminatory attitudes about people who live in Appalachia, Kaine said. “He was a big reader, and a very curious-minded kid, and he knew that folks looked down on Appalachians, and he connected that to people who were looking down on African-Americans, and he linked those in his mind and decided you should never treat anyone as a second-class citizen, that everybody is a first-class citizen.”

Upon graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington in 1944, Holton joined an officer candidate program of the U.S. Navy and served in the submarine service in the final months of World War II. When he returned home to Southwest Virginia, he saw the world around him with different eyes. 

“He talked many a time passionately about what it was like coming back from the war, where he’d seen exposure to a bigger and broader world, and then come back to Virginia, where something like 9% of the electorate was choosing the next governor because of the way the poll taxes and the party control limited participation,” Anne Holton said. “Southwest Virginia was an outsider to the Byrd Machine power bases during those days, and I think that his interest in politics started with the notion of breaking up the Byrd Machine, that this was not a good thing to have a one-party state and then have that one part controlled by a very small elite, and Southwest Virginians were on the outside of that power structure then.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1949, Holton moved to Roanoke to practice law, hoping to eventually enter politics. He joined the Republican Party, which had been a small, powerless minority in the first half of 20th century Virginia, where the then conservative Democratic Party had been in control for decades. In 1952, Holton campaigned for the GOP presidential candidate Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,  and he viewed Eisenhower’s victory in Virginia as a sea change and opportunity for Republicans to make their mark in the commonwealth. Even two defeats in his own 1955 and 1957 campaigns for the House of Delegates did not deter him.

“Rather than being discouraged, Holton saw himself as a pioneer and party-builder,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He had the can-do spirit and attitude of the Southwest, and he saw himself as fulfilling a vital mission, to bring two-party politics to Virginia and end the unhealthy lack of competition and innovation in state government.”

People in the Southwest had long believed they were ignored by Richmond, and the level of alienation was considerable, Sabato said. “The state did not end at Roanoke, as so many in Richmond seemed to think, and Holton capitalized on that – and no doubt saw the truth in the assertion.”

Ray Garland, a businessman and Republican politician from Roanoke who served several terms in the House of Delegates and the state Senate beginning in 1968, first met Holton in 1962, when he was the local GOP chairman. At the time, Garland worked on his brother Robert A. Garland’s campaign for city council, and Holton gave advice. “My brother was a popular pharmacist in Roanoke, and he won easily,” Garland, now 87, said in a recent phone interview. “We made a great effort ro run Republican tickets at the time. Roanoke was a Republican town, and Republicans had a strong standing.”

Garland said that Holton understood that the Byrd Machine and “the old eastern aristocracy” was detrimental to Southwest Virginia. “The Republican party of Holton’s day was a liberal alternative to the Democrat party, which was very conservative,” Garland said. “In politics you got to sell what people buy, and there was no point for Republicans to be a conservative party, because the Democrats had a monopoly on that.” Holton’s upbringing in the far Southwest always guided his career in politics, Garland said. “He was an ethical and moral man, an outstanding personality, he was a natural in politics,” he said. 

In 1965, Holton ran for governor for the first time, but he lost to Mills E. Godwin, a Democrat from Suffolk and a supporter of the Byrd Machine. When he tried again four years later, Virginia and the country had changed – and Holton carried 52.5% of the vote, defeating Democrat William C. Battle, two independents and a candidate for the newly founded Conservative Party, becoming the first Republican to carry Virginia since 1869. A shift in Virginia’s electoral politics after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and abolition of the poll tax in 1966 also helped move the odds towards Holton’s favor. 

“He was lucky in 1969 to win,” said Garland. “He made a good run in1965 against Godwin, but the Democratic Party fractured. Linwood had a real opportunity, and the state was ready to make a change.” Northern Virginia was becoming very Republican, and so did Richmond and Roanoke, “and Holton came in and he got the benefit of the Democratic split, and the state was ready to turn the page,” Garland said.

Holton’s memorial service

The service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 19 at Second Presbyterian Church, 5 North 5th Street in Richmond. 

The service will be streamed live on the Second Presbyterian Church website.  

Gifts in lieu of flowers may be made to the Linwood Holton Elementary School (via designation through the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation) or to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

When Holton, his wife Virginia and their four children – Anne, Tayloe, Woody and Dwight –  moved into Richmond’s Executive Mansion on Jan. 17, 1970, he brought a big piece of Southwest Virginia with him – his Southwest twang. “Holton was Harvard-educated, but he spoke directly and without artifice,” Sabato said. “He was very proud of his Southwest roots, both Big Stone Gap and Roanoke. It was one of the elements of the man that made him so personable.” 

Once he had assumed office, Holton didn’t waste any time to bring change to Virginia’s static race relations, leading by example. He gained both national notoriety and acclaim during a controversy over the use of busing in order to integrate Richmond Public School by enrolling his children in majority-Black inner city schools to which, due to the location of their primary residence near Capitol Square, they were assigned under a federal plan. 

Other hallmarks of his tenure include the creation of the first state fund for community mental health centers, the Virginia Governor’s School Program in 1973, and his efforts to increase employment among women and African-Americans. Holton’s upbringing in the rural Southwest also played a significant role in his environmental initiatives, particularly his plan to clean up almost all of Virginia’s polluted rivers. 

“Lin did a lot for Virginia, whether it was being a civil rights champion or being a powerful believer in the environment,” Kaine said. “He loved the outdoors, he’s always been an outdoors person, so I think his Southwest Virginia upbringing led him to raising the state income tax to clean up Virginia rivers.” Holton also rejuvenated the State Water Control Board, and Southwest Virginia assets like Smith Mountain Lake wouldn’t be what they are today “if he had not decided that protecting the environment isn’t bad for business,” Kaine said.

Holton’s two biggest accomplishments as governor, Kaine added, are “turning the state’s back on segregation and embracing a Virginia for all, and trying to end the one-party rule in Virginia, because Virginia was a one-party state, and with the particular corruption of the Byrd Machine through poll taxes and other mechanisms they drove down turnout dramatically.”

After his successful four year tenure, Holton served 11 months as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the administration of President Richard Nixon. Later in the 1970s, he sought his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate, but finished third in a four-way contest. 

Even in retirement, Holton remained active and connected to his roots in Southwest Virginia. He served on the board of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, an economic development agency based in Russell County, and made many trips back home to Big Stone Gap, even after his parents died. 

Holton’s daughter Anne said that going to see the annual performance of The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, a drama based on the novel by John Fox Jr. set in Wise County that is one of the longest running outdoor dramas in the country, has been a family tradition for decades. 

“We were always going to the drama when we were kids, and the question every year is who’s going to play Miss June,” Holton said, adding that she remembers going back with her father when he was governor, then going back when her husband was governor, followed by visits with her children and their grandfather together to see the play. 

“I’ll never forget how much fun it was for our kids to get a glimpse of the experiences that we had growing up with our father,” Holton said. “I think it’s safe to say Southwest Virginia was always very much in Dad’s heart.” 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.