“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain once said, “but it often rhymes.” In that case, Virginia merits poet laureate status. As the new year begins, we find ourselves looking both forward and, in some cases, backward. Here are three ways:
- A family tradition. When Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares named Chuck Slemp, the commonwealth’s attorney for Wise County and Norton, as his chief deputy this week, that brought to statewide attention the Slemp family’s long tradition of public service that dates back to the years before the Civil War. Sebastian Smyth Slemp of the Turkey Cove community in Lee County served in the House of Delegates from 1850 to 1852. After the Civil War, his son, Henry Slemp, was elected to the state Senate in 1875 for a single term (he later came back and served another term in the House of Delegates). In 1879, Lee County also elected Henry Slemp’s younger brother, Campbell Slemp, to the House of Delegates. Originally a Democrat, Campbell Slemp became a Readjuster when that party briefly rose to power in the 1880s. The Readjusters – whose name came from their commitment to “readjust” the state’s debt, to the chagrin of powerful bond-holders – were the progressive party of their day. They appointed Black Virginians to public office, they founded Black schools and they abolished the whipping post. For that, they were promptly turned out of office and evolved into Republicans, whose power was always stronger in western Virginia than it was in the east. Slemp ran for lieutenant governor in 1889 – he lost – but was elected to Congress in 1902 and held the 9th District seat until his death in 1907. As Virginia’s only Republican member of Congress at the time, he was effectively in charge of all patronage in the state while Theodore Roosevelt was president.
Slemp’s son – C. Bascom Slemp – succeeded his father in Congress. The presence of a Republican congressman in Southwest Virginia was something of an embarrassment to the Democratic machine that controlled the state – this was before Harry Byrd so we can’t properly call it the Byrd Machine. At the time, it was the Thomas Martin Machine. In 1910, Democrats mounted a serious challenge to Slemp with Russell County businessman Henry Carter Stuart as their candidate, who vowed to “redeem the district.” That campaign became nationalized, as we’d say today, with Roosevelt weighing in on Slemp’s behalf. In the end, Slemp won by 200 votes, although Stuart initially refused to concede (here’s some more of that rhyming history). The Fightin’ Ninth apparently did not want to be “redeemed.” For his effort, Democrats rewarded Stuart by running him for governor in 1913, which he won, but Slemp stayed on until his retirement after the 1922 elections, by which point there had been two decades of Slemps representing the 9th District in Congress. One of many historical notes: When Congress took up the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the one that eventually allowed women to vote — every member of the Virginia delegation was opposed. Except one. Slemp was the state’s sole congressional supporter of women’s suffrage.
Bascom Slemp wasn’t done, though. He served for two years as presidential secretary to President Calvin Coolidge, a position today we’d call chief of staff. The Slemp name remains a prominent one in Southwest Virginia. The federal courthouse and post office in Big Stone Gap are named for C. Bascom Slemp. There’s a Slemp Foundation (set up through his will) that has awarded more than $27 million in scholarships and grants since its founding in 1946 and a Slemp Student Center at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. And now there’s another Slemp whom voters in Wise County and Norton have twice entrusted with their votes but who will now become more familiar to Virginians across the state. And yes, let’s go ahead and look to the future: This new appointment puts today’s Slemp in a position to be a contender for attorney general in some future election. We now have 172 years of Slemp public service in Virginia and the prospect of many more.
- Communists in the capital? Del.-elect Marie March, R-Floyd County, wonders if there might be communists in the General Assembly. If so, she has a bill that she says will expose them; she’ll be sponsoring legislation to require American flag decals on the sides of school buses. In a recent interview with podcaster Scott Bunn, March suggested that voting against this bill would be a sure sign of being a communist. “If there are communists in the House of Delegates, let’s figure out who they are,” she said.
I’m not sure which is more remarkable: the thought that there might be communists lurking in the state Capitol or that they’d be so easy to expose. Apparently a bill to put American flag decals on school buses is to communists what garlic, crucifixes and sunlight* are to vampires. (*“Twilight” characters excepted.) If only we’d known this during the Red Scare of the late ’40s and ’50s we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble. But that’s not the history we’re interested in today. It’s this: At least five times in Virginia history a Communist Party candidate has run for statewide office. I’m not talking about all the times we’ve had fringe candidates from the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Labor Party that others like to call communists. I’m talking about out-and-out, capital C, official card-carrying Communists.
In 1936, Donald Burke of Richmond was the Communist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. His wife, Alice, went on to run four times – for the U.S. Senate in 1940, for governor in 1941, and for the Senate again in 1942 and 1946. To this day, Alice Burke remains the answer to this trivia question: What woman has been on a statewide general election ballot in Virginia more times than any other?
Donald Burke took 3.4% of the vote in his 1936 campaign; Alice Burke topped out at 2.8% in her 1940 campaign. She took 0.9% in the governor’s race, then 2.2% and 1.6% in her other Senate races. It’s hard to compare results across the years – people often try that with sports figures when they want a good barstool argument – but it’s worth noting that in the recent governor’s race, third-party candidate Princess Blanding took just 0.7% of the vote, so couldn’t even hit the Communist Party low point in 1941.
Who were these Communist Party voters in the ’30s and ’40s? Umm, a lot of them were in Southwest Virginia. Donald Burke’s best locality in 1936 was Dickenson County, where he took 7.7% of the vote. He took 7.1% in Carroll County, 6.7% in Wythe County, 6.6% in Buchanan County, 6.5% in Tazewell County, 6.2% in Alleghany County, 6.1% in Pulaski County and 6.0% in Henry County. In March’s Floyd County, 3.7% of voters in 1936 cast ballots for a Communist, slightly above Burke’s statewide average. Until someone invents a time machine, it’s hard to say from this distance why they were voting for a Communist. Perhaps there was a restive labor movement in the coal counties, or maybe it was because there was no Republican candidate on the ballot in 1936. Republicans then were mostly confined to western Virginia (see the Slemps above) so it’s easy to picture some 1930s Republican voting for a Communist that he or she knew wouldn’t win, simply as a way to express displeasure with the Byrd Machine, which really was the Byrd Machine by then.
We should also be mindful of what those Communists were campaigning on. Who knows what their secret agenda was, but their public planks called for abolishing the poll tax, electing school boards and raising the minimum wage. Even today’s conservatives would be for two of those three.
- The Lee Monument governor. The Lee Monument in Richmond – perhaps we should say the former Lee Monument – has, or rather, had, a Southside Virginia connection. The governor who signed off on accepting the statue for the state in 1890 was Philip McKinney, who was born in Buckingham County and practiced law in Prince Edward County at the time of his election in 1889. The monument itself had been a priority for the previous governor, Robert E. Lee’s nephew, FitzHugh Lee. All this may seem distant history but it’s not all that distant. Remember I mentioned the Readjusters earlier, the party that Campbell Slemp had joined? The election of 1885 saw the Readjusters thrown out of office – Lee led the Democratic ticket that ousted them. In 1889, the party tried for a comeback. While the Readjusters experimented with a multiracial government, the conservative Democrats of the time had no interest in any such things. McKinney ran as an unabashed white supremacist. The Danville Times called that year’s election “a great battle for the supremacy of the white race.” McKinney trounced William Mahone for the governorship and James Hoge Tyler of Pulaski County defeated Campbell Slemp for lieutenant governor, solidifying the hold that white supremacists held on the state. Now, more than a century later, a scion of that Slemp family will be in Richmond – working for the state’s first Latino attorney general. How’s that for history rhyming?