SPOTLIGHT: Of Black Hair & Confederate History in the WV Legislature

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By Erin Beck | march17.2021 | Mountain State Spotlight

Myya Helm, a 21-year-old student at West Virginia University, poses on campus. Helm said that when lawmakers focus on preserving Confederate monuments over a bill meant to end discrimination based on Black hairstyles, she feels an even stronger push to leave the state. Photo courtesy Myya Helm.

The West Virginia Legislature, overwhelmingly made up of white lawmakers, is considering two bills that hit particularly close to home for Black constituents — one that would prevent the removal of Confederate monuments, and one to ensure Black West Virginians can wear their natural hair free from discrimination.

White lawmakers in powerful positions at the Legislature decide whether those bills have a chance at becoming law, because they decide whether those bills will be placed on a committee agenda, which is the next step in the legislative process after a bill is introduced. 

On Monday, March 15, lawmakers in the House of Delegates Government Organization Committee passed the “West Virginia Monument and Protection Act of 2021,” sponsored by Delegate Chris Phillips, R-Barbour. [NOTE: A public hearing on the measure took place 3 p.m. Wednesday. , attracting 19 people who voiced objections to the act with only one legislator in attendance.]

Walker introduced the Crown Act last year, after a freshman basketball player at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley was told his dreadlocks weren’t “neat” enough to play.

Meanwhile, with the legislative session more than halfway over, lawmakers haven’t prioritized a bill to ban discrimination based on hairstyles associated with race, such as natural Black hair or dreadlocks. 

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, re-introduced that bill this year, which, like the monument protection bill, was sent to the House Government Organization Committee. 

Walker introduced the Crown Act last year, after Matthew Moore, a freshman basketball player at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, was told his dreadlocks weren’t “neat” enough to play. 

But so far, the bill hasn’t been put on the agenda of the committee that’s chaired by a delegate in Matthew’s county, Republican Brandon Steele of Raleigh County.

Tarsha Bolt, Matthew’s mother, is concerned lawmakers, while they work to preserve remnants of history, aren’t equally focused on people experiencing discrimination right now.

Bolt said she planned to contact Steele about the bill.

“I just want him to understand that maybe something that’s not important to him is so important to constituents in his area,” she said. “He is aware of the Crown Act, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Crown Act is important to him.”

Preserving history

House Bill 2174 would prohibit the removal of monuments and memorials unless the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office grants a waiver. Delegate Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam and a co-sponsor, noted that while there have been efforts across the country to remove Confederate monuments, the bill isn’t limited to just these relics.

“I think that might be some of the reasons that some people may have supported it,” he said, following the committee meeting Monday. “I’m not sure I can speak for them. But for me, it’s to protect all the monuments.”

While nearly 100 Confederate monuments were removed across the country in 2020 — and in Charleston, just across town from the Capitol, Stonewall Jackson Middle School was renamed — many monuments remain.  That includes the statue of Jackson on the Capitol grounds; he was a Confederate general.

“But he’s from West Virginia,” Jeffries said of Jackson. “He’s from the Clarksburg area and I think that he deserves his place on Capitol grounds just like any of the other statues.”

The House Government Organization Committee, discussing the monument protection bill on Monday, March 15, 2021. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

During the meeting, Democrats raised concerns the bill could end up stopping local governments from doing things like renaming streets.  They also attempted unsuccessfully to amend the bill so that only monuments for members of the military who fought on behalf of the United States government would be protected.

Del. Evan Hansen said since the bill would clearly protect Confederate monuments, it should be called the “West Virginia Confederate Monument and Memorial Protection,” but that amendment was rejected.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, noted that Confederate monuments could still be placed in museums, “where the historical significance can be preserved.”

After that amendment was rejected, he suggested that since the bill would clearly protect Confederate monuments, lawmakers should call it the “West Virginia Confederate Monument and Memorial Protection,” but that amendment was rejected as well. 

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said Monday was a “sad day” when lawmakers were “giving a place of honor to some people who were murderers, who were slaveholders who thought it was OK to own human beings.”

She noted that West Virginia was formed because the western counties of Virginia would not agree to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.

“I don’t know about you guys but I remember West Virginia leaving to join the Union to not be part of all that,” she said.

The bill’s supporters argued that it doesn’t say specifically that Confederate statues cannot be removed; they could be removed with a waiver from the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office.

The bill passed the committee 19-6, and would still have to be passed by the full House and Senate to become law.

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Discrimination, past and present

For Tarsha Bolt, whose son’s experience inspired the state-level version of the Crown Act, protecting monuments and memorials isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But she also wants to see lawmakers focus on problems Black people continue to face every day.

“We are making history right now,” she said, referencing ongoing policy decisions at the Legislature. “If you want to protect monuments, OK.

House Bill 2698 would make it illegal to discriminate based on hair texture or hair style, but has not been put on a fast track in the WV Legislature unlike the monument preservation bill.

“What about living, walking humans right now that we are trying to just protect the right to live, the right to go to school, the right to get an education, the right to the pursuit of happiness? That is equally important, if not more important right now.”

House Bill 2698 would make it illegal to discriminate based on hair texture or hair style. While discrimination based on race in housing, public accommodations and employment is already illegal under the state Human Rights Act, the bill clarifies that racial discrimination includes mistreatment based on hairstyles typically associated with race.

Walker, the lead sponsor, said her first year in the Legislature, she overheard lawmakers in the hallways saying her natural hair made her “unapproachable.”

“And I backed up, and I looked at them, and I said ‘I’m the most approachable person,’” she said. “Regardless of how I’m feeling about something, I will stop and be respectful and listen. And you have to characterize me by the strands from my head. I’m going to pray for you a little bit harder tonight.”

She said she didn’t give the lawmakers a chance to respond. She just walked away with tears in her eyes. 

Although much of the attention last year was directed toward Bolt’s son’s experience, both Walker and Myya Helm said hair discrimination isn’t something that happens in isolated incidents. 

It’s something Black people have had to think about their entire lives, they said.

“I haven’t been denied a job because of my hair, because I’ve always been taught to wear my hair a certain way whenever I’m interviewing or meeting potential employers for the first time,” Helm said. She’s currently Walker’s intern and a Black student at West Virginia University.

Myya Helm, a 21-year-old college student interested in policy and advocacy work, pictured on the campus of West Virginia University. Photo courtesy Myya Helm.

She said she has been treated differently based on how she wears her hair, including if she braids it or wears it naturally. Managers have told her she looked “unprofessional.”

She said she notices people, “usually people that have some type of power over me,” will be more likely to talk down to her or see her as “aggressive.”

That treatment may be “unconscious” on the part of her bosses, she said.

But she’s also always been hyper-aware of those biases, and worked harder because of them. So the idea that her hair makes her less professional stings. 

Hair discrimination is still very much on Tarsha Bolt’s mind, too. She said this year, her son wasn’t selected for the basketball team, which she worries is retaliation for all the publicity. He’s also dropped out of ROTC. 

Dreadlocks are acceptable. Dreadlocks are a cultural hairstyle. It’s one way to maintain natural African-American coarse hair.” ~ Tarsha Bolt

She said last year, kids made memes about him and asked him why he didn’t just cut his hair. He told the Register-Herald, at the time, that he was sitting in the locker room ripping out his own dreadlocks by the second game.

“When in reality, his hair is neat,” his mother said. “His hair looks good. Dreadlocks are acceptable. Dreadlocks are a cultural hairstyle. It’s one way to maintain natural African-American coarse hair.”

She teaches her son to be respectful and keep his head up, and that he could always be stereotyped.

Like Helm, she noted that Black people are constantly asked to “assimilate.”

She said that nobody “should have to ask for permission to be themselves in the way that God made them.”

Several states have already passed versions of the Crown Act. But Bolt said her son felt like last year’s effort was pointless when the bill died. 

“He didn’t understand that sometimes you gotta fight a little bit harder and a little bit longer, and things are not going to happen automatically,” she said. “You have to be persistent and persevere.”

Power and Priorities

One way to view legislative priorities is by watching how many committees — or hurdles — a bill has to pass before it makes it to the floor of the House or the Senate for a vote.

The Crown Act has been assigned to two committees on the House side, and an identical bill has been assigned to two committees in the state Senate. For it to become law this legislative session, either bill would have to pass two committees by March 28. It would then have to pass both the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders decided the monument and memorial protection bill needed less scrutiny. It was only assigned to one House committee, so following the committee meeting Monday, that bill was sent straight to the floor where it’s scheduled for a final vote this week.

“There is a whole coalition in support of the Crown Act.” ~ Del. Danielle Walker

As the committee chairman, Steele decides, with input from other delegates, which bills his committee will consider. “There’s a significant number of members in our caucus that wanted to see [the monument bill] run and I haven’t seen that same support for the Crown Act,” he said on Monday. 

Steele said before the Crown Act would be introduced, “We need to find out whether we have the support for it.”

Danielle Walker at a Huntington rally in June 2020. photo

Walker said she believes the support is there — from constituents if not from lawmakers.

“There is a whole coalition in support of the Crown Act,” she said. “And I’m not understanding why the Crown Act could not have been placed on today’s agenda by the chairman, versus a bill that — we’re speaking about dead people. That is alloys and metals.”

And while lawmakers have said they want to focus on growing West Virginia’s population, including retaining young people and attracting new people to the state, Helm said the disconnect between Black young people and people in power in West Virginia makes her think about leaving every day. 

“From a young age, it kinda seemed like this state doesn’t want me,” she said. She remembers growing up in north central West Virginia, where schools taught that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.”

“A lot of these things seem like they’re constantly working against me and my literal existence.” ~ Myya Helm

They didn’t say what that really meant, she said — “states’ right to own slaves.”

So far, Helm has stayed in West Virginia because of the Promise Scholarship. But she’s not sure what the future will bring. 

“Right now I think if I had to make a decision, I probably would not stay in state,” she said. “A lot of these things seem like they’re constantly working against me and my literal existence.”

She reaches out to mentor Black high school students from her region, but she’s starting to feel like she could make a bigger difference in Black people’s lives somewhere else. 

“I don’t want other Black people to experience West Virginia the same way I had to experience it, and I want to change it for the better,” she said. “But it is just so difficult and emotionally draining … It’s the constant fight. There’s never a break.”

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