Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Roanoke County before the election. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

Here are 21 big things that happened in 2021 (not necessarily in order of importance!), with emphasis on our part of the state:

  1. Virginia legalized cannabis. We used to call this marijuana and some still do. But cannabis is now the preferred term. In 2021, Virginia became the first Southern state, and the 17th nationwide, to legalize recreational weed. Sort of. You can grow it and smoke it but you can’t yet sell it. Virginia is still working on those rules, complicated now (perhaps) by a new Republican majority in the House of Delegates. There are lots of libertarian-minded Republicans who are fine legalizing pot – but because they’re libertarian-minded, that means they’re very much at odds with Democrats who wanted to put lots of “equity” rules into the granting of cannabis licenses. Where Democrats wanted to enact social policy, those Republicans want to let the free market have its way.
  2. Virginia abolished the death penalty. While Virginia was legalizing marijuana, it was outlawing the death penalty. As with pot, Virginia was the first Southern state to do so, and the 23rd overall. In its history, Virginia has executed 1,390 people – and was second only to Texas since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after previously striking down death penalty laws. The practical effect in Virginia might be slight: No jury had imposed a death sentence since 2011.
  3. The reappraisal of Confederate (and other) symbols continued. The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond came down. Patrick Henry Community College became Patrick & Henry Community College, on the theory that referred to the counties and not the slave-holding colonial revolutionary. (Never mind that the two counties are named after Patrick Henry.) Dabney S. Lancaster is becoming Mountain Gateway. (Lancaster was an advocate of “massive resistance” to integration in the 1950s.) Three community colleges in other parts of the state are being renamed, as well: Lord Fairfax, Thomas Nelson and John Tyler have been shown the door. But Washington & Lee University will remain Washington & Lee.
  4. We got a lot more historical markers. The flip side of statues and names coming down is historical markers going up. The state has put new emphasis on historical markers that recognize parts of our history that previously didn’t get much, if any, attention. Clifton Forge now has a historical marker to Roger Arliner Young, the first Black woman to get a doctorate in zoology. Charlotte County has a historical marker to Joseph Holmes, who rose from slavery to become a post-war politician involved in writing the state’s new constitution – and then was murdered on the courthouse steps. Bristol gained historical markers to civil rights leader Charles Johnson and the Lee Street Baptist Church. And, at year’s end, the state approved a bunch more historical markers with an emphasis on the state’s civil rights history. Among those are markers about Norvel Lee, a Botetourt County native who went on to become the state’s first Black Olympic gold medalist, winning the light heavyweight boxing championship at the 1952 games in Helsinki; John Underwood of Clarke County, who was chased out of Virginia in the 1850s for his abolitionists views, then presided over the wring of the state’s post-Civil war constitution, and, more controversially, a marker about the Martinsville Seven, seven Black men executed in 1951 for rape. (The Department of Historic Resources always points out that markers aren’t meant to honor anyone, but to recognize that history happened on or near that spot).
  5. Most of us got vaccinated. The first COVID vaccination in Virginia came in Norfolk in December 2020 but the big rollout happened this year. It was shaky at first (for a while Virginia ranked near the bottom) but then improved markedly. The good news: 77.1% of Virginians have now had at least one dose of vaccine and 67.5% are considered fully vaccinated. The bad news: Vaccination rates are wildly uneven. They don’t split along rural/urban lines as many think — Northampton County on the Eastern Shore is certainly rural, but it’s also got one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, with 79.1%. However, there is a cluster of counties where vaccination rates remain low and they are all rural. The least-vaccinated locality in the state is Carroll County, where just 43.7% of the population has been vaccinated at least once. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Carroll often ranks as one of the counties with the highest infection rate. Other counties where less than half the population has been vaccinated are: Patrick County, 45.2%; Craig County and Lee County, both 47.4%; Prince Edward County, 48.4%; Tazewell County, 48.9%; Wythe County, 49.6%
  6. Virginia debated school policies. Oh, and did we. Sometimes it was over virtual versus in-person learning. Sometimes it was mask policies. Sometimes it was transgender policies. Every school system in the state was directed to adopt policies for transgender students. It did not always go well. The Virginia Mercury reported that at least six localities – including Augusta County, Bedford County and Pittsylvania County – have refused to do so. And then there was the whole mess in Loudoun County, and how seriously it was taking reports of sexual assaults on campus. These school debates no doubt played in part in item No. 8 – Republicans sweep Virginia’s statewide elections – but first we need to get to the event that helped make that possible:
  7. Republicans adopt ranked-choice voting. So much for a party of traditionalists. Intent on holding a convention to nominate their statewide ticket, but unable to hold a traditional one due to pandemic rules, Republicans opted for ranked-choice voting, where delegates listed their choices in order. Did that affect the outcome? Possibly. Ranked-choice voting rewards candidates who are someone’s second choice, so it advantages candidates with broad appeal – and disadvantages those with a narrow base. The firebrand Amanda Chase might have won a primary in a multicandidate field but couldn’t put together 50% in a convention – and certainly not in a ranked-choice convention. Republican conventions often nominate the most conservative candidates possible. This time, a ranked-choice convention nominated very mainstream candidates for governor and attorney general (the jury is still out on its lieutenant governor candidate). Will this be just a one-time thing? If you go by the election results, Republicans may want to stick with this.
  8. Glenn Youngkin leads Republican sweep. At the start of the year, it’s fair to say most Virginians had never heard of Glenn Youngkin. Heck, most Republicans hadn’t. Now he’s set to become our next governor. Youngkin broke a 12-year losing streak for Republicans. The party hadn’t won a statewide election since 2009. This year it swept, with Youngkin elected governor, Winsome Sears elected lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares elected attorney general. Lots of history got made here: Sears becomes the first Black woman elected to statewide office, and just the second woman ever (former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry was the first). Miyares, the son of a Cuban refugee, becomes the state’s first Latino statewide officeholder. And Miyares became the first candidate to oust a sitting attorney general in Virginia since 1885. Meanwhile, Republicans also took back the House of Delegates. When things started looking rocky for the Democratic ticket statewide, Democratic Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn assured people that “the majority is safe.” Turns out, it wasn’t. Two years after Democrats regained control of the House of Delegates, they lost it. Republicans picked up seven seats to claim a 52-48 majority. This changes the political dynamic in Richmond as much as a Republican governor will. Democrats still hold the state Senate, which won’t be up for reelection until 2023. But the party’s majority is a slim 21-19. Just one defection on a floor vote creates a tie that Sears will be able to break.
  9. The biggest jobs announcement for Southwest Virginia in a generation. In October, a medical glove manufacturer announced it would build a plant in Wythe County that may eventually make up to 60 billion gloves per year. It’s the largest jobs announcement in Southwest Virginia since the state started keeping records in 1990, and the second largest manufacturing jobs announcement anywhere in the state in that time.
  10. Virginia gets three new dark sky parks. These are places that meet criteria set by the International Dark-Sky Association for being dark enough to see certain stars. Think of this as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for that economic niche known as astro-tourism which, yes, is a real thing. Virginia previously had two dark sky parks, both in Southside – Staunton River State Park in Halifax County and James River State Park in Buckingham County. This year it picked up Natural Bridge State Park, Rappahannock County Park and Sky Meadows in Fauquier County. Why is this a big deal? Umm, because this is one of those things that fits into the region’s “quality of life” pitch.
  11. Green Pastures is back. Speaking of parks, an old park in Alleghany County got a new life this year. In the 1930s, Green Pastures was carved out of the national forest, the only official outdoor recreation space for Black Virginians in those segregated days. Over the years, Green Pastures name changed and, in recent years, fell into disuse and disrepair. This fall, thanks to a new infusion of state funding, Green Pastures reopened. Said Clifton Forge Mayor Pam Marshall at the re-opening: “We had a part of our history restored today.”
  12. Free community college tuition for students in Martinsville and Henry County. The economy is changing, but the way we fund education is now. The economy now increasingly demands more than a high school diploma (although not necessarily a four-year degree) but we only provide a free education through high school. That creates a gap. And Martinsville and Henry County already have a gap between the percentage of the workforce with a college degree and the national average. Enter the Harvest Foundation, the community foundation funded by the sale of the nonprofit hospital there years ago. Three years ago, the foundation launched a pilot program to pay for every local high school graduate to go to what is now Patrick & Henry Community College if they wanted to. That proved so successful that the foundation this year extended that program for 13 years – effectively promising every student in Martinsville and Henry County a chance to go to community college if they want to. This is a bold, generational bet to change the economic trajectory of the community.
  13. Money for rural broadband. If there’s one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s the need to extend broadband internet into rural areas. They might disagree on how to pay for it, but they all agree on the need. Virginia’s been making steady progress on this under Gov. Ralph Northam but the federal infrastructure package passed this year will accelerate that. Northam now expects Virginia to achieve universal broadband coverage by 2024, four years ahead of schedule. This is the modern equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s.
  14. The census numbers showed how we have two Virginias. We knew this all along, of course, but now we have a new set of numbers to prove it. Every locality west of the New River is losing population. So are most of the ones in Southside. So are many rural localities elsewhere, such as in the Alleghany Highlands. None of this is good but one good thing may come out of it: State officials now seem more engaged about the fate of rural Virginia. At the Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke in November, one Northern Virginia legislator – state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County – declared that it’s “all hands on deck” for rural Virginia. We’ll see, but the numbers sure help make that case, as painful as some of them might be.
  15. Redistricting happened and it happened in a way it never has before in Virginia. This was the first time the majority party in the General Assembly didn’t have control over how new lines are drawn. Voters had taken that power away from them in a constitutional amendment that set up a bi-partisan redistricting commission. The redistricting commission also failed to agree on maps. Or maybe it didn’t fail, maybe it just failed to agree. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, since it was stacked with partisans on both sides. When the commission gridlocked, the task of drawing new lines was kicked up to the Virginia Supreme Court, which appointed two special masters to do the deed. Did the commission really fail? That’s a matter of opinion. It failed at drawing lines, for sure, but it did succeed in surfacing many of the options the court will have to consider, and generating public comment on the same. That meant the justices knew what the public thinks, which can’t be a bad thing. In the end, we got maps that were drawn without regard for incumbents, and with districts that, while not always things of beauty, are generally more logical than the ones we had before.
  16. Flood devastated Hurley. The small community in Buchanan County was ravaged by a flood in late August. More than 60 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged; total damage estimates of homes and infrastructure run to more than $16 million and are likely to keep rising. (And that doesn’t include an estimated $30 million for stream restoration.) Amazingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected a request for disaster aid for homeowners. The United Way of Southwest Virginia is helping raise money for flood victims. You can donate here.
  17. Virginia Tech football makes a coaching change. Justin Fuente left “by mutual agreement,” Brent Pry was hired. Why should we care who’s in charge of telling young scholars how best to carry a bag of air down the field? Because Tech football is responsible for an economic impact of about $81 million in the Roanoke and New River valleys – and, compared to other schools, could generate more. This isn’t just about X’s and O’s, it’s about $$$.
  18. The Appalachian League was demoted. Speaking of sports … Major League Baseball restructured its whole minor league system. The Carolina League – in which Salem and Lynchburg play – is no more. Instead it has the corporate designation of “Low A East,” which is thoroughly unimaginative but perhaps ripe someday for corporate naming rights. Meanwhile, the Appalachian League – whose teams include Bluefield, Bristol, Danville and Pulaski – was booted out of the minor leagues altogether. Instead of being a professional rookie league, it transitioned to become a summer league for top-rated college players. Did that matter? Based on attendance figures, not really. So maybe the headline here should be that the Appalachian League survived, because some minor league cities wound up with no teams at all.
  19. Southwest Virginia got more transportation options. A new bus line opened service from Bristol to Washington, with stops along the way. Meanwhile, Amtrak announced it would extend service to Christiansburg. The trains aren’t running yet, but this year the deal was signed to extend line to Roanoke over the mountain to Christiansburg, which sets up the possibility that someday Amtrak will continue on to Bristol – the next big goal. The Roanoke-to-Lynchburg-to-the-Northeast line has proven so popular that a second train will be added, perhaps by summer 2022. Bedford also won a promise of an Amtrak stop this year, too.
  20. The energy transition marked more milestones. In 2008, coal accounted for 48% of the nation’s electrical generation, more than double anything else. Since then coal’s share of the power grid has been declining at an increasingly fast rate. In 2016, coal fell behind natural gas for the first time. In 2020, coal plummeted to fourth place. Natural gas remained the No. 1 source of energy, and its share is growing, now up to 40%. Meanwhile, renewables — both wind and solar — became the nation’s second-biggest source of energy, at 21%. That means renewables now rank ahead of nuclear, at 20%, and coal, at 19%. Those figures are now a year old but just came out at the end of 2021so they feel new (we’ll have to wait nearly a year for this year’s stats, apparently). Regardless of when they came out, they explain what’s happening around us: The energy transition may not be happening fast enough for some but it’s definitely happening. That’s why the InvestSWVA is conducting a study on whether Southwest Virginia can become a center for wind turbine manufacturing. The future is here, and if we’re not part of it, we’re going to be left more behind than we already are. We see this energy transition happening in lots of ways, big and small: Solar farms are now popping up all across Southside Virginia, creating opportunities for some landowners and controversies for others. In Southwest Virignia, the Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy announced a deal this fall to put a 1,200-acre solar farm on a former mine site in Dickenson and Russell counties. And that’s not even the first solar farm announced for the coalfields, just the biggest. In October, Appalachian Power — one of the most coal-dependent utilities in the country — began drawing its first solar energy, from a solar farm in Henry County. All these trends will continue and no doubt accelerate. Anyone want to venture a guess what the percentages will be a year from now? Or a decade from now?
  21. Alden Global Capital makes a bid for most of Virginia’s daily newspapers. Alden is a hedge fund with a reputation for buying newspapers and then gutting them. That may be profitable for the investors but is bad for the communities that depend on newspapers to cover their local governing boards, their planning commissions, their school boards. Fewer journalists means less insight into what local government is doing. Alden already owns the newspapers in Norfolk and Newport News. Now it’s made a bid for Lee Enterprises, the Iowa company that owns the dailies in Bristol, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Danville, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Richmond and Roanoke, plus lots of weeklies and semi-weeklies, particularly in the western part of the state. Lee responded by adopting a “poison pill” strategy to ward off a takeover. Alden responded to that by suing. Make no mistake: The amount, and quality, of local journalism Virginians are accustomed to is at stake. 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at