Richmond is hot in the summer. August days in Virginia’s capital feature the kind of heat that shimmers in waves from the pavement and even in the evenings plasters suit shirts to skin like wet towels. On one such evening last year, that heat did a little extra sticking, even as a group of people gathered packed in a tiny room behind the governor’s mansion. In the middle of the group, Governor Terry McAuliffe stood, relishing the attention despite the heat. He’d shown his visitors through the traditional attractions of his home, like the room where the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly lodged during his 1820s tour of the United States. But he reserved the most gusto for the pieces of the mansion and its history that many previous inhabitants had preferred to skip: a thin staircase leading to the warrens and passageways where house slaves were expected to move and work unseen, and the handiworks of generations of enslaved people who’d been shuffled in and out of the house like furniture. The visit to the slave quarters was his pièce de résistance, a heavy dose of symbolism for a program whose beneficiaries he’d invited to dine with him.
McAuliffe’s ten-person audience represented a cross-section of people who’d been granted pardons under the governor’s sharply expanded clemency program. That program is one component of a campaign that his office has embarked on to change a state criminal-justice system rooted in Jim Crow that has disenfranchised and stripped civil rights from people—disproportionately black people—for decades. And while McAuliffe’s term is up in a matter of days, that campaign has already affected the politics of Virginia and the lives of thousands of its citizens, and could someday prove transformative, both for Virginia politics and its criminal-justice system.
Virginia hasn’t made life easy on people who go through that system. George H. Spicer’s story is a testament to that fact. The 75-year-old journeyman preacher from the Tidewater region considers it his life work to help guide young black men—often his parishioners—who’ve been caught up in that system in their uphill battles to find jobs, to avoid recidivism, and to rejoin society and regain their rights. But, for most of his life, Spicer dealt with his own uphill battle to pursue his own dream in Virginia.