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Editorial: Holton's long-lasting lesson about Roanoke

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Back in December, former Gov. Linwood Holton was in town for a ceremonial tree-planting at the newly-renamed Holton Plaza in downtown Roanoke, a soon-to-be remodeled patch of land near the former Norfolk Southern building.

Something Holton said that day sticks with us and deserves a deeper inspection.

First, though, we have to explain the context because the context is critical.

Holton’s Roanoke connection was one of choice. He was born in Big Stone Gap, but moved here after law school – and was living in Roanoke when he was elected governor in 1969.

Holton’s significance to Virginia bears repeating anytime his name is mentioned: Holton broke open what had been a one-party state ruled by a small clique of establishment figures and turned Virginia into a two-party democracy. In the process, he also wrenched Virginia out of the Old South and set it squarely in an emerging New South. His predecessor had once championed segregation; Holton used his inaugural address to declare: “The era of defiance is behind us. Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

The Holton administration draws a bright line through Virginia history, vividly demarcating one era from another.

Let’s rewind, though, to Holton’s decision to move to Roanoke the first place, because that’s what we’ve been thinking about.

Holton talked about how when he came home from service in the Pacific in World War II, he learned that only 8 percent of Virginians had elected Bill Tuck as governor in 1945. The voting laws were restrictive in those days when the state levied a poll tax – and the Voting Rights Act was still decades away. The only party that mattered was the Democratic Party – a decidedly conservative institution run by “the Byrd Machine” of Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. Holton – a Republican – set his mind toward changing all that. “I wanted to break up that machine,” he said.

First there was law school but once he graduated from Harvard in 1949, he scouted around to find a city to make his political base. “I knew Roanoke was a wide-open, broad-thinking community that was open to change,” Holton said. “Roanoke was the place to do it.”

By contrast, he said, Lynchburg and Richmond were still in thrall to “the old plantation or slave society” and “I didn’t know anything about Tidewater.” Northern Virginia then was still mostly farmland. So Roanoke it was. Roanoke wasn’t that open, though. At first, Holton couldn’t find a job – the big law firms refused to hire him because he went to Harvard, and not the University of Virginia. He had to offer to work free before he found a position. Still, it’s curious to us that Roanoke stood out in Holton’s mind as “a wide-open” community in contrast to others in Virginia at the time.

Roanoke’s history surely had a lot to do with that. This wasn’t a city founded by colonial planters. Not only did it not exist during the Civil War; it didn’t even exist until after Reconstruction. Roanoke’s historical experience is completely unlike that of most Virginia cities. It is a new city in the Old Dominion. There was no entrenched aristocracy here; instead, there were successive waves of immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s – most notably Greeks and Lebanese (who often faced some of the same legal discrimination that African-Americans did).

What happened in 1899 – or 1949 – may seem ancient history now, but we’d venture a connection that continues to this day. Roanoke is hardly perfect, of course – no place is – but there does seem to be a certain openness to community life here that we should be proud of. Roanoke was one of the first cities in Virginia to elect an African-American mayor – Noel Taylor in the 1970s. We remain one of the few places where a white-majority district elected an African-American to the General Assembly – Onzlee Ware was elected to six terms before he retired in 2013. He’s now a judge. Last May, the white-majority electorate of Roanoke installed both an African-American mayor and vice mayor.

We are not a place that requires someone to trace their genealogy back several generations before we elect them to office. Our current congressman was born in Massachusetts. His predecessor was from Illinois, by way of New York. Our General Assembly delegation presently includes a Habeeb and a Rasoul – from different parties. Del. Sam Rasoul, by the way, is the only Muslim in the General Assembly – and that was scarcely an issue when he was elected.

Holton’s comments reminded us of something the author James Fallows wrote last year. Fallows spent three years travelling across the United States, visiting small-to-medium-sized cities to see how well they’re working. He produced a much-quoted article in The Atlantic magazine that included a checklist of “eleven signs a city will succeed.”

Number nine on that list was “they make themselves open.” Fallows wasn’t thinking just in terms of openness in political leadership, but instead of a more general welcoming attitude toward newcomers. He wrote: “The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something people expressed in most of the cities we visited. On the contrary. Politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people.”

Fallows listed cities from Greenville, South Carolina, to Fresno, California, that “have gone to extraordinary lengths” to welcome immigrants. (If he’d visited Roanoke, he’d have surely put Roanoke on the list, too.)

Immigrants, though, weren’t the only kind of newcomers Fallows had in mind: “Every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.”

So here’s a thought: When the newly-renovated Holton Plaza is open and the tree he planted is green with leaves, pause to think about his legacy and how he helped open up opportunity in Virginia to all.

But also think about why he settled in Roanoke in the first place, and what we can do to make sure we remain “a wide-open, broad-thinking community . . . open to change.”

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