“The Hampton Roads Chamber believes diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are an absolute business imperative,” began Bryan K. Stephens, President & CEO. On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, the Hampton Roads Chamber, Virginians for Reconciliation, and the Hampton Roads Community Foundation hosted a panel event to recognize the National Day of Racial Healing. “It’s about remembering, learning lessons from our history, overcoming those terrible lessons, and coming together as a Commonwealth, so all have an opportunity for equal rights,” said Stephens.
“Virginians for Reconciliation aims to spread some of this truth-telling and forgiveness reconciliation message to opinion leaders in the business community,” said Bob McDonnell, former Governor of Virginia. McDonnell introduced the panelists: Lynne M Jackson, President and Founder, The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation; Charles Taney IV, a nonprofit consultant; Keith Plessy, Co-Founder and President, Plessy and Ferguson Foundation; and Phoebe Ferguson, Co-Founder, Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.
In honor of National Day of Racial Healing, the descendants of two landmark 19th century Supreme Court Cases: Dredd Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson, came together to discuss discrimination and equality in America. “We’re a state of great contrasts,” said McDonnell. “We helped to begin the problem in 1619, and we should be a leader in helping to promote the future of reconciliation.” Governor McDonnell referred to the Commonwealth as a “true melting pot.” He encouraged the audience to question their presumptions, ask themselves how they can change, and what they can do to enact positive change in America.
Lynn Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom in 1857, thanked the audience for their time. “I started the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation with three pillars in mind: commemoration, education, and reconciliation,” Jackson said these pillars are what brought the panelists together. “We’ve been able to share our individual stories and how they overlap and how they connect,” said Jackson. She said their personal stories are what helped to draw them together.
Charles Taney IV, the great-great-great-nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who denied Scott his freedom, discussed his daughter’s one-act play “A Man of His Time” which exposed his family’s tie to Dred Scott. Taney said his daughter’s play is what put him in contact with Jackson and resulted in his apology for the decision his great-great-grand uncle made in 1857. ”You can’t run from it, you’ve got to face that,” said Taney. “So we apologized, the Scott’s forgave us, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Keith Plessy, whose great grandfather was a cousin of Homer Plessy, discussed how he came to meet each panelist. He said they communicated via phone and email for five years before meeting face-to-face and beginning their work together. Plessy described how he met Phoebe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson, who ruled against Homer Plessy. “When I first met Phoebe, I shook her hand and had an open heart already because I wanted to meet her and find out more about the Ferguson family,” said Plessy. Upon meeting Ferguson, she apologized for slavery and racism. Plessy told her, “Phoebe, we were not born during that time, so we need to do something different. It’s no longer Plessy vs. Ferguson, its Plessy and Ferguson.”
A Q&A portion followed the panelist’s introductory comments. Bryan Stephens began the dialogue with a question on how to change the culture of racism and hatred. Jackson replied that racist behaviors are learned and inculcated through family, friends, and communities. “To answer your question, it has to do with what we teach our children, especially moving forward. So, it starts with the adults, and it starts with our community,” said Jackson.
Taney also added, “It’s about education.” He encouraged the audience to get to know each other and to step outside of their comfort zones to change the culture. “The institution of racism is alive and well, and we have to educate people to stop and think about their positions and get to know each other.” Plessy went on to add, “When you do take the time to get people at the table, good things can happen. If you start with the younger generation, you can begin to plant those seeds for change.”
James White of Safelite AutoGlass and Hampton Roads Chamber Board of Directors asked the panelists what the next steps are for diversity and inclusion efforts to go from conversation to action. Jackson said, “As a corporation or business if you have the means and recourses, reach out to the schools and bring in young people for internships. Try to support programs in your community to invest your time and resources.” She encouraged the business community to be “purposeful and intentional” in diversity and inclusion efforts.
In closing, Stephens thanked the panelists for their time and said, “If we are going to change the culture, we have to take it upon ourselves to be change agents for action.”