Virginia elects first Black speaker of the state House

The Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday swore in the chamber’s first Black speaker in a 405-year history that includes serving as the capital of the Confederacy: Del. Don Scott, whose personal story includes an arrest for drugs, a federal prison sentence and a rise through the ranks of a company to ultimately return to practicing law.

Scott, who represents a district that includes Portsmouth, had been the minority leader before Democrats took control of the House in last year’s election.

Scott’s path to the position was an unusual one. After he graduated from LSU Law School and served in the Navy, he was convicted of federal drug charges and served seven years in prison. Scott has said he believes his sentence was disproportionate to his crime.

After prison, he moved to Virginia and rose up the ranks of corporate America before taking the bar exam. His experience inspired him to help reform prison systems, and he worked as a criminal defense attorney. He said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2018: “Jail really sucks the blood from you. That’s why I fight.”

He kept his criminal record private before he disclosed it in an interview in his lead-up to running for office in which he said, “I’m not going to be defined by that one day.” He first won election in 2019.

The Virginia General Assembly is the oldest English-speaking legislative body in America. Speaking at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Scott underlined the historic nature of the moment, saying it is “an honor and privilege to be elected as the first Black speaker of the House of Delegates, 405 years” after its founding and, “coincidentally, 405 years after the first enslaved people who arrived here not far from here.”

Looking around the Statehouse, a building built by slaves, he said: “I look around this room, I see the ghosts of the people who worked here, the Black people whose dignity was not recognized in this room. … We carry their hopes and dreams and posterity. I carry it in my heart. All the people who never got their rights heard. Thank God the commonwealth has turned the page.”