One hundred years ago, as state leaders mulled rewriting the Virginia constitution, they opted to let local governing bodies select school board members rather than give people the right to elect school boards. The reason: They feared people might elect Blacks.
That example, as recounted by Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union, highlights a public approach to election laws that decades later led Congress to require southern states to create political districts that contain more Black voters than whites.
If the legislature approves a plan that reduces the number of Black majority districts in the General Assembly, the U.S. Department of Justice might reject it. But if lawmakers go too far in creating bizarre-looking districts just to ensure that Blacks are treated fairly, the courts might also overturn that plan.
"What has made this more complicated was the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 1990s," Willis said.
Congress laid out rules regarding the role of race in redistricting in the 1960s through the Voting Rights Act. In the 1980s Congress strengthened the laws, making it easier for people to challenge state redistricting plans.
At that time, the court essentially said states had to create as many Black majority districts, known as "majority-minority" districts, as possible. That would ensure, the court said, that Blacks' influence would not be diluted.
Virginia drew 12 House seats, five state Senate seats and one congressional district that met that criteria.
Then the court changed its mind.
In essence, the court in the 1990s said race cannot be the predominant factor in redistricting. It can be taken into consideration, but traditional principles such as requiring districts to be compact and contiguous cannot be neglected.
Many districts around the country, including Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, which was by then represented by Newport News Democrat Robert C. Scott, had to be redrawn.
Despite the court's change in direction, Scott's congressional district and three Peninsula General Assembly districts -- two in the House and one in the Senate -- represent more Black voters than white voters.
While many voters approve of the mandate to create Black majority districts as an effort to end years of discrimination, others say it gives Democrats an unfair advantage.
Boyd L. Williams is a white Republican who lives in the Denbigh area of Newport News. Scott is his congressman and W. Henry Maxwell represents him in the state Senate. Both of those men were elected in Black-majority districts.
"Bobby Scott and Henry Maxwell don't represent me in philosophy in any way whatsoever. ... They've put me in a position where my voice is worthless," said Williams, a 70-year-old retired engineering technician from NASA Langley.
Other Republicans think the requirement for Black majority districts helps their party. That's because they see it as a way to consolidate Democratic voters, increasing the likelihood that Republicans will prevail in neighboring districts.
Any plan the General Assembly passes next month must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before being enacted. And the Justice Department requires the state to retain each of the Black majority districts as long as the population changes merit it.
"At the very least Virginia can protect the African-American majority districts that currently exist," said Willis, whose organization has analyzed the Census results.
With more than 135,000 Black residents in Hampton and Newport News, legislative leaders say that will probably happen.
"Considering the racial make up of Newport News and Hampton, fundamental fairness requires an opportunity for an African-American to represent those constituents," said state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City. Norment is the Senate floor leader and serves on the Privileges and Elections Committee, which will draw a redistricting plan to present to the Senate.
Willis, the executive director of Virginia's chapter of the ACLU, concedes that blatant racism like that exemplified by the participants at the state constitutional convention in 1901 is a thing of the past. But the legal protections for Black-majority districts remain necessary, he said.
"The problem is there is a long history of race discrimination in the election process," he said.