6/23/2022, 6 p.m.
We often hear the expression “Black excellence,” particularly when Black people, individually or collectively, achieve the seemingly impossible.
It’s an apt accolade for legions of Black men, women and young people who show up and show us their best selves after surviving countless obstacles in their professional or personal lives.
In every issue of the Richmond Free Press, it’s easy to find examples of Black excellence because nearly every page offers our readers insight into someone somewhere who makes us proud, makes us think or brings us joy.
Take S. Bernard Goodwyn, who was on the front page of the Free Press’ June 9-11 edition just hours after his investiture as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Chief Justice Goodwyn, 60, was appointed to the court by in 2007, unanimously elected by the General Assembly in 2008 and re-elected in 2020. Notably, Chief Justice Goodwyn is the second African-American to serve as chief justice, with the late Justice Leroy H. Hassell Sr. named the court’s first Black chief justice on in 2003 until his death in 2011.
Rising from humble beginnings in Southampton County, Chief Justice Goodwyn, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia School of Law, became the first African-American judge appointed to Chesapeake’s formerly all-white, all-male General District Court bench in 1995. Two years later he was appointed to the Circuit Court. Before becoming a judge, Justice Goodwyn handled civil, commercial and civil rights litigation for Wilcox and Savage, a prestigious Norfolk law firm. Although some Chesapeake-area Black people were lukewarm to his first judicial appointment, saying that he knew little about the community, Chief Justice Goodwyn soon won them over.
“I don’t understand a lot of people’s concerns (about me),” the newly appointed Judge Goodwyn told a Norfolk newspaper reporter 27 years ago, adding that he had not purposefully attempted to curry political favor with anyone. “I’ve always thought I was very involved in the community and will continue to be.”
A more recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling that shows he remains in tune with the community includes a September 2021 order to remove the 131-year old statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The suit was filed in 2020 to challenge then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s orders to remove the statue. The governor’s order came following protests that erupted after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Other triggers that year included the murders of Breonna Taylor, also by law enforcement, in Louisville, Ky., and Ahmaud Arbery by white men near Brunswick, Ga. Richmonders and others reacted by vandalizing the statue and demanding its removal.
In rendering his ruling, Justice Goodwyn wrote that honoring the language of a bill written nearly one and a half centuries ago that prohibited removing the statute would limit the government’s free speech rights.
“The General Assembly of 1889 had no authority to perpetually bind future administrations’ exercise of government speech through the simple expedient of a joint resolution,” Justice Goodwyn wrote in a 26-page opinion.
“The commonwealth has the power to cease from engaging in a form of government speech when the message conveyed by the expression changes into a message that the commonwealth does not support, even if some members of the citizenry disagree because, ultimately, the check on the commonwealth’s government speech must be the electoral process, not the contrary beliefs of a portion of the citizenry, or of a nineteenth-century governor and legislature,” he further wrote.
The Richmond Free Press also announced in that same June 9-11 issue Dominion Energy’s and the Library of Virginia’s annual recognition of Black men and women who’ve shown extraordinary talent and tenacity in overcoming barriers to achieve success. From labor leader Samuel H. Clark, who fought to improve conditions for Black railroad workers, to NASA engineer Christyl C. Johnson. Ms. Johnson, executive director of the National Science and Technology Council at the White House from 2008 to 2010, shapes Goddard’s Space Flight missions of the future in planetary, astrophysics, heliophysics and earth science. A prolific advocate of STEM education for women and girls, she constantly reminds them that the sky is unlimited.
During a June 16 program for this year’s “Strong” honorees, octogenarian Henry L. Marsh, a former Richmond mayor and retired Virginia senator, gave a moving video tribute for his former law partner Samuel L. Tucker, who was posthumously recognized. Mr. Tucker sat on legal teams that sued to reopen Prince Edward County’s public schools when they closed rather than desegregate after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Mr. Tucker also fought, in court, to end tuition subsidies for white students to attend private academies, notes his Library of Virginia biography. He argued the landmark case Green v. New Kent County School Board, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that local school boards must immediately implement desegregation strategies. Mr. Tucker’s continual battles for equal justice led to an unsuccessful attempt by white lawyers to disbar him early in the 1960s.
This spring-into-summer season of recognizing the commonwealth’s extraordinary leaders and success stories continues. Several Virginians’ work in athletics, education and theater will be highlighted during the Virginia Interscholastic Association Heritage Association’s Hall of Fame awards ceremony on June 24 in Charlottesville.
The Hall of Fame helps preserve the legacy of African- American students and adults who participated in the Virginia Interscholastic Association from 1954 to 1970, along with its predecessor, the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic League, which ensured that Black students in segregated high schools excelled beyond the classroom. Some of this year’s honorees include two people who are working to restore or preserve the legacy of their former all-Black high schools, Virginia State University’s first female athletic director, a woman who helped develop the GPS, two standout athletes, and a Golden Globe and NAACP Image Awards nominee.