Virginia (/vərˈdʒɪniə/ (listen)), officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a state in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States, between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains. The geography and climate of the Commonwealth are shaped by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay, which provide habitat for much of its flora and fauna. The capital of the Commonwealth is Richmond; Virginia Beach is the most-populous city, and Fairfax County is the most-populous political subdivision. The Commonwealth’s population in 2020 was over 8.65 million, with 36% of them living in the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area.
The area’s history begins with several indigenous groups, including the Powhatan. In 1607, the London Company established the Colony of Virginia as the first permanent English colony in the New World. Virginia’s state nickname, the Old Dominion, is a reference to this status. Slave labor and land acquired from displaced native tribes fueled the growing plantation economy, but also fueled conflicts both inside and outside the colony. Virginia was one of the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution, becoming part of the United States in 1776. The state would be split by the American Civil War in 1861, when Virginia’s state government in Richmond joined the Confederacy, but many in the state’s western counties remained loyal to the Union, helping form the state of West Virginia in 1863. Although the Commonwealth was under one-party rule for nearly a century following Reconstruction, both major political parties are competitive in modern Virginia.
Virginia’s state legislature is the Virginia General Assembly, which was established in July 1619, making it the oldest current law-making body in North America. It is made up of a 40-member Senate and a 100-member House of Delegates. The state government is unique in how it treats cities and counties equally, manages local roads, and prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms. Virginia’s economy has many sectors: agriculture in the Shenandoah Valley; high tech and federal agencies, including the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency, in Northern Virginia; and military facilities in Hampton Roads, the site of the region’s main seaport.
Virginia has a total area of 42,774.2 square miles (110,784.7 km2), including 3,180.13 square miles (8,236.5 km2) of water, making it the 35th-largest state by area. Virginia is bordered by Maryland and Washington, D.C. to the north and east; by the Atlantic Ocean to the east; by North Carolina to the south; by Tennessee to the southwest; by Kentucky to the west; and by West Virginia to the north and west. Virginia’s boundary with Maryland and Washington, D.C. extends to the low-water mark of the south shore of the Potomac River.
The Commonwealth’s southern border is defined as 36°30′ north latitude, though surveyor error in the 1700s led to deviations of as much as three arcminutes as the North Carolina border moved west. Surveyors appointed by Virginia and Tennessee worked in 1802 and 1803 to reset the border as a line from the summit of White Top Mountain to the top of Tri-State Peak in the Cumberland Mountains. However, errors in this line were discovered in 1856, and Virginia proposed a new surveying commission in 1871, but Tennessee disagreed, and in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the 1803 line in the case Virginia v. Tennessee. One result of this is the division of the city of Bristol between the two states.
Geology and terrain
The Chesapeake Bay separates the contiguous portion of the Commonwealth from the two-county peninsula of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The bay was formed from the drowned river valleys of the Susquehanna River and the James River. Many of Virginia’s rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James, which create three peninsulas in the bay, traditionally referred to as “necks” named Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, and the Virginia Peninsula from north to south. Sea level rise has eroded the land on Virginia’s islands, which include Tangier Island in the bay and Chincoteague, one of 23 barrier islands on the Atlantic coast.
The Tidewater is a coastal plain between the Atlantic coast and the fall line. It includes the Eastern Shore and major estuaries of Chesapeake Bay. The Piedmont is a series of sedimentary and igneous rock-based foothills east of the mountains which were formed in the Mesozoic era. The region, known for its heavy clay soil, includes the Southwest Mountains around Charlottesville. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a physiographic province of the Appalachian Mountains with the highest points in the Commonwealth, the tallest being Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet (1,746 m). The Ridge-and-Valley region is west of the mountains, carbonate rock based, and includes the Massanutten Mountain ridge and the Great Appalachian Valley, which is called the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains are in the southwest corner of Virginia, south of the Allegheny Plateau. In this region, rivers flow northwest, with a dendritic drainage system, into the Ohio River basin.
The Virginia Seismic Zone has not had a history of regular earthquake activity. Earthquakes are rarely above 4.5 in magnitude, because Virginia is located away from the edges of the North American Plate. A 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Virginia on August 23, 2011, near Mineral, and was the Commonwealth’s largest in at least a century. Due to the area’s geologic properties, the earthquake was felt from Northern Florida to Southern Ontario. 35 million years ago, a bolide impacted what is now eastern Virginia. The resulting Chesapeake Bay impact crater may explain what earthquakes and subsidence the region does experience. A meteor impact is also theorized as the source of Lake Drummond, one of just two natural lakes in the state.
The Commonwealth’s carbonate rock is filled with more than 4,000 limestone caves, ten of which are open for tourism, including the popular Luray Caverns and Skyline Caverns. Virginia’s iconic Natural Bridge is also the remaining roof of a collapsed limestone cave. Coal mining takes place in the three mountainous regions at 45 distinct coal beds near Mesozoic basins. More than 72 million tons of other non-fuel resources, such as slate, kyanite, sand, or gravel, were also mined in Virginia in 2020. The largest-known deposits of uranium in the U.S. are under Coles Hill, Virginia. Despite a challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state has banned its mining since 1982 due to the dangers of radiation.
|Virginia state-wide averages 1895–2021|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Virginia has a humid subtropical climate that transitions to humid continental west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Seasonal extremes vary from average lows of 25 °F (−4 °C) in January to average highs of 86 °F (30 °C) in July. The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream have a strong effect on eastern and southeastern coastal areas of the Commonwealth, making the climate there warmer and more constant. Most of Virginia’s recorded extremes in temperature and precipitation have occurred in the Blue Ridge Mountains and areas west. Virginia receives an average of 43.49 inches (110 cm) of precipitation annually, with the Shenandoah Valley being the state’s driest region due to the mountains on either side.
Virginia has around 35–45 days with thunderstorms annually, and storms are common in the late afternoon and evenings between April and September. These months are also the most common for tornadoes, fifteen of which touched down in the Commonwealth in 2020. Hurricanes and tropical storms can occur from August to October, and though they typically impact coastal regions, the deadliest natural disaster in Virginia was Hurricane Camille, which killed over 150 people mainly in inland Nelson County in 1969. Between December and March, cold-air damming caused by the Appalachian Mountains can lead to significant snowfalls across the state, such as the January 2016 blizzard, which created the state’s highest recorded snowfall of 36.6 inches (93 cm) near Bluemont. Virginia only received 13.1 inches (33 cm) of snow during winter 2018–19, just above the state’s average of 10 inches (25 cm).
Climate change in Virginia is leading to higher temperatures year-round as well as more heavy rain and flooding events. Urban heat islands can be found in many Virginia cities and suburbs, particularly in neighborhoods linked to historic redlining. Arlington had the most code orange days in 2020 for high ozone pollution in the air, with seven, followed by Fairfax County with four. Exposure of particulate matter in Virginia’s air has decreased 49% from 13.5 micrograms per cubic meter in 2003 to 6.9 in 2020. The closure and conversion of coal power plants in Virginia and the Ohio Valley region has reduced haze in the mountains, which peaked in 1998. Coal has declined as a source of Virginia’s electricity from 44% in 2008 to just 4% in 2019, and current plans call for 30% of the Commonwealth’s electricity to be renewable by 2030 and for all to be carbon-free by 2050.
Forests cover 62% of Virginia as of 2019, of which 78% is considered hardwood forest, meaning that trees in Virginia are primarily deciduous and broad-leaved. The other 22% is pine, with Loblolly and shortleaf pine dominating much of central and eastern Virginia. In the western and mountainous parts of the Commonwealth, oak and hickory are most common, while lower altitudes are more likely to have small but dense stands of moisture-loving hemlocks and mosses in abundance. Gypsy moth infestations in oak trees and the blight in chestnut trees have decreased both of their numbers, leaving more room for hickory and invasive ailanthus trees. In the lowland tidewater and Piedmont, yellow pines tend to dominate, with bald cypress wetland forests in the Great Dismal and Nottoway swamps. Other common trees and plants include red bay, wax myrtle, dwarf palmetto, tulip poplar, mountain laurel, milkweed, daisies, ferns, and Virginia creeper, which is featured on the state flag. The largest areas of wilderness are along the Atlantic coast and in the western mountains, where the largest populations of trillium wildflowers in North America are found.
As of June 2019, roughly 16.2% of land in the Commonwealth is protected by federal, state, and local governments and non-profits. Federal lands account for the majority, with thirty National Park Service units in the state, such as Great Falls Park and the Appalachian Trail, and one national park, Shenandoah. Shenandoah was established in 1935 and encompasses the scenic Skyline Drive. Almost forty percent of the park’s total 199,173 acres (806 km2) area has been designated as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System. The U.S. Forest Service administers the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, which cover more than 1.6 million acres (6,500 km2) within Virginia’s mountains, and continue into West Virginia and Kentucky. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge also extends into North Carolina, as does the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which marks the beginning of the Outer Banks.
State agencies control about one-third of protected land in the state, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation manages over 75,900 acres (307.2 km2) in forty Virginia state parks and 59,222 acres (239.7 km2) in 65 Natural Area Preserves, plus three undeveloped parks. Breaks Interstate Park crosses the Kentucky border and is one of only two inter-state parks in the United States. Virginia allows sustainable logging in 26 state forests managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry totaling 71,972 acres (291.3 km2), and hunting in 44 Wildlife Management Areas run by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources covering over 205,000 acres (829.6 km2). The Chesapeake Bay is not a national park, but is protected by both state and federal legislation and the inter-state Chesapeake Bay Program, which conducts restoration on the bay and its watershed.
White-tailed deer, one of 75 mammal species recorded in Virginia, rebounded from an estimated population of as few as 25 thousand in the 1930s to over one million by the 2010s. Native carnivorans include black bears, who have a population of around five to six thousand in the state, as well as bobcats, coyotes, both gray and red foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Rodents include groundhogs, weasels, nutria, beavers, both gray squirrels and fox squirrels, chipmunks, and Allegheny woodrats, while the 17 bat species include brown bats and the Virginia big-eared bat, the state mammal. The Virginia opossum is also the only marsupial native to the United States and Canada, and the native Appalachian cottontail was recognized in 1992 as a distinct species of rabbit, one of three found in the state. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises have also been recorded in Virginia’s coastal waters, with bottlenose dolphins being the most frequent aquatic mammals.
Virginia’s bird fauna consists of 422 counted species, of which 359 are regularly occurring, 41 are accidental (vagrant), 20 are hypothetical, and two are extinct; of the regularly occurring species, 214 have bred in Virginia, while the rest are winter residents or transients in Virginia. Water birds include sandpipers, wood ducks, and Virginia rail, while common inland examples include warblers, woodpeckers, and cardinals, the state bird, and birds of prey include osprey, broad-winged hawks, and barred owls. There are no species of bird endemic to the Commonwealth. Audubon recognizes 21 Important Bird Areas in the state. Peregrine falcons, whose numbers dramatically declined due to DDT pesticide poisoning in the middle of the 20th century, are the focus of conservation efforts in the state and a reintroduction program in Shenandoah National Park.
Virginia has 226 species of freshwater fish from 25 families; the state’s diverse array of fish species is attributable to its varied and humid climate, topography, interconnected river system, and lack of Pleistocene glaciers. The state’s lakes and rivers are home to Eastern blacknose dace and sculpin on the Appalachian Plateau; smallmouth bass and redhorse sucker in the Ridge-and-Valley region; brook trout, the state fish, and Kanawha darter in the Blue Ridge; stripeback darter and Roanoke bass in the Piedmont; and swampfish, bluespotted sunfish, and pirate perch in the Tidewater. The Chesapeake Bay is host to clams, oysters, and 350 species of saltwater and estuarine fish, including the bay’s most abundant finfish, the Bay anchovy, as well as the invasive blue catfish. An estimated 405 million Chesapeake blue crabs live in the bay as of 2020. There are 34 native species of crayfish, like the Big Sandy, which often inhabit rocky bottomed streambeds. Amphibians found in Virginia include the Cumberland Plateau salamander and Eastern hellbender.
Virginia celebrated its quadricentennial year in 2007, marking 400 years since the establishment of the Jamestown Colony. The observances highlighted contributions from Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans, each of which had a significant part in shaping Virginia’s history. Warfare, including among these groups, has also had an important role. Virginia was a focal point in conflicts from the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the Civil War, to the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. Fictionalized stories about the early colony, in particular the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, first became popular in the period after the Revolutionary War, and together with other myths surrounding George Washington‘s childhood and the plantation elite in the antebellum period, became touchstones of Virginian and American culture and helped shape the state’s historic politics and beliefs.
The first people are estimated to have arrived in Virginia over 12,000 years ago. By 5,000 years ago, more permanent settlements emerged, and farming began by 900 AD. By 1500, the Algonquian peoples had founded towns such as Werowocomoco in the Tidewater region, which they referred to as Tsenacommacah. The other major language groups in the area were the Siouan to the west and the Iroquoians, who included the Nottoway and Meherrin, to the north and south. After 1570, the Algonquians consolidated under Wahunsenacawh, known in English as Chief Powhatan, in response to threats from these other groups on their trade network. Powhatan controlled more than thirty smaller tribes and more than 150 settlements, who shared a common Virginia Algonquian language. In 1607, the native Tidewater population was between 13,000 and 14,000, but over that century, three-fourths of the native population in Virginia would die from smallpox and other Old World diseases.
Several European expeditions, including a group of Spanish Jesuits, explored the Chesapeake Bay during the 16th century. To help counter Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean, Queen Elizabeth I of England supported Walter Raleigh‘s April 1584 expedition to the Atlantic coast of North America. The name “Virginia” was used by Captain Arthur Barlowe in the expedition’s report, and may have been suggested that year by Raleigh or Elizabeth, perhaps noting her status as the “Virgin Queen” or that they viewed the land as being untouched, and may also be related to an Algonquin phrase, Wingandacoa, or leader’s name, Wingina, as heard by the expedition. Initially the name applied to the entire coastal region from South Carolina to Maine, plus the island of Bermuda. Raleigh’s colony failed, but in 1606, the new king James I of England issued the First Virginia Charter to the London Company, a joint stock company that financed a new expedition, which was led by Christopher Newport and sailed that December. They landed in Virginia in May 1607, and established a settlement named for the king, Jamestown.
Life in the colony was perilous, and many died during the Starving Time in 1609 and in a series of conflicts with the Powhatan Confederacy that started in 1610, and flared up again in 1622, when led by Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough. Only 3,400 of the 6,000 early settlers had survived by 1624. However, European demand for tobacco fueled the arrival of more settlers and servants. The headright system tried to solve the labor shortage by providing colonists with land for each indentured servant they transported to Virginia. African workers were first imported to Jamestown in 1619 initially under the rules of indentured servitude. The shift to a system of African slavery in Virginia was propelled by the legal cases of John Punch, who was sentenced to lifetime slavery for attempting to escape servitude in 1640, and of John Casor, who was claimed by Anthony Johnson as his servant for life in 1655. Slavery first appears in Virginia statutes in 1661 and 1662, when a law made it hereditary based on the mother’s status.
Colonists struggled with rule from both the London Company and English monarchy, which took direct control of the colony in 1624. Starting in 1619, colonists pushed for greater local control with an elected leadership, later called the House of Burgesses, that shared power with the appointed governors. In 1635, colonists arrested a despised governor and forced him to return to England against his will. The turmoil of the English Civil War permitted Virginia even greater autonomy during the 1650s, and many supporters of the king fled to the colony, becoming known as “Virginia Cavaliers“. Tensions and the geographic differences between the working and ruling classes led to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, by which time current and former indentured servants made up as much as eighty percent of the population. The rebels, who burned Jamestown, were largely from the colony’s frontier, and opposed to the governor’s conciliatory policy towards native tribes. One result of the rebellion was the signing at Middle Plantation of the Treaty of 1677, which made the signatory tribes tributary states and was part of a pattern of appropriating tribal land by force and treaty.
In 1693, the College of William & Mary was founded in Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg in 1699, when it became the new capital of the growing colony. Colonists in the 1700s were eager to explore westward, and in 1747, a group of Virginian speculators formed the Ohio Company, with the backing of the British crown, to start English settlement and trade in the Ohio Country west of the Appalachian Mountains. France, which claimed this area as part of their colony of New France, viewed this as a threat, and the ensuing French and Indian War became part of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). A militia from several British colonies, called the Virginia Regiment, was led by then-Lieutenant Colonel George Washington.
The British Parliament’s efforts to levy new taxes following the French and Indian War were deeply unpopular in the colonies. In the House of Burgesses, opposition to taxation without representation was led by Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, among others. Virginians began to coordinate their actions with other colonies in 1773, and sent delegates to the Continental Congress the following year. After the House of Burgesses was dissolved by the British governor in 1774, Virginia’s revolutionary leaders continued to govern via the Virginia Conventions. On May 15, 1776, the Convention declared Virginia’s independence from the British Empire and adopted George Mason‘s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was then included in a new constitution. Another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon Mason’s work in drafting the national Declaration of Independence.
When the American Revolutionary War began in 1776, George Washington was selected to head the Continental Army, and many Virginians joined the army and other revolutionary militias. Virginia was the first colony to ratify the Articles of Confederation in December 1777. In April 1780, the capital was moved to Richmond at the urging of Governor Thomas Jefferson, who feared that Williamsburg’s coastal location would make it vulnerable to British attack. British forces indeed landed around Portsmouth in October 1780, and soldiers under Benedict Arnold managed to raid Richmond in January 1781. Though a larger force, British indecision and maneuvers by Continental Army regiments under the Marquis de Lafayette and the French navy together trapped the British army on the Virginia Peninsula in September 1781, where troops under George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau converged and defeated British General Cornwallis in the siege of Yorktown. His surrender on October 19, 1781 led to peace negotiations in Paris and secured the independence of the colonies.
Virginians were instrumental in the new country’s early years and in writing the United States Constitution. James Madison drafted the Virginia Plan in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1789. Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788. The three-fifths compromise ensured that Virginia, with its large number of slaves, initially had the largest bloc in the House of Representatives. Together with the Virginia dynasty of presidents, this gave the Commonwealth national importance. In 1790, both Virginia and Maryland ceded territory to form the new District of Columbia, though the Virginian area was retroceded in 1846. Virginia is called the “Mother of States” because of its role in being carved into states such as Kentucky, which became the fifteenth state in 1792, and for the numbers of American pioneers born in Virginia.
In addition to agriculture, slave labor was increasingly used in mining, shipbuilding and other industries. Soil exhausted by years of tobacco farming also pushed the plantation economy to expand westward. The failed slave uprisings of Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Nat Turner in 1831 however marked the growing resistance to the system of slavery. One response to Nat Turner’s rebellion by the Virginia government was to arrange for ships to transport free Blacks to Liberia. On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on an armory in Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start a slave revolt across the southern states. The polarized national response to his raid and execution marked a tipping point for many who believed the end of slavery would need to be achieved by force. By 1860, almost half a million people, roughly 31% of the total population of Virginia, were enslaved.
Open warfare started on April 12, 1861 at the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the United States. The next week President Lincoln called for armed volunteers while in Virginia, a special convention called by the General Assembly voted to secede on the condition it was approved in a referendum the next month. The convention then voted on April 24 to join the Confederate States of America, which named Richmond as its capital on May 20. During the referendum, armed pro-Confederate groups prevented the casting and counting of votes from many northwestern counties that opposed secession. Representatives from 27 of these counties instead attended the Wheeling Convention, which organized a government loyal to the Union and led to the separation of West Virginia as a new state.
Union forces reached the outskirts of Richmond by June 1862, but Virginian general Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and repelled the Union army, led invasions into Union territory, and was named General in Chief of Confederate armies in February 1865. During the war, more battles were fought in Virginia than anywhere else, including the Battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the concluding Battle of Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. After the capture of Richmond that month, the state capital was briefly moved to Lynchburg, while the Confederate leadership fled to Danville. 32,751 Virginians died in the Civil War. Virginia was formally restored to the United States in 1870, due to the work of the Committee of Nine.
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
During the post-war Reconstruction era, African Americans were able to unite in communities, particularly around Richmond, Danville, and the Tidewater region, and take a greater role in Virginia society, as many achieved some land ownership during the 1870s. Virginia adopted a constitution in 1868 which guaranteed political, civil, and voting rights, and provided for free public schools. However, with much of the railroads and other infrastructure investments destroyed during the Civil War, the Commonwealth was deeply in debt, and in the late 1870s redirected money from public schools to pay bondholders. The Readjuster Party formed in 1877 and won legislative power in 1879 by uniting Black and white Virginians behind a shared opposition to debt payments and the perceived plantation elites.
The Readjusters focused on building up schools, like Virginia Tech and Virginia State, and successfully forced West Virginia to share in the pre-war debt. But in 1883, they were divided by a proposed repeal of anti-miscegenation laws, and days before that year’s election, a riot in Danville involving armed policemen left four Black men and one white man dead. These events motivated a push by white supremacists to seize political power, and segregationists in the Democratic Party won the legislature that year and maintained control for decades. They passed Jim Crow laws and in 1902 rewrote the state constitution to include a poll tax and other voter registration measures that effectively disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites.
New economic forces would meanwhile industrialize the Commonwealth. Virginian James Albert Bonsack invented the tobacco cigarette rolling machine in 1880 leading to new industrial scale production centered around Richmond. In 1886, railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington founded Newport News Shipbuilding, which was responsible for building six World War I-era dreadnoughts, seven battleships, and 25 destroyers for the U.S. Navy from 1907 to 1923. During the war, German submarines like U-151 attacked ships outside the port. A homecoming parade to honor African-American veterans returning from the war was attacked in July 1919 as part of a renewed white-supremacy movement that was known as Red Summer. During World War II, the shipyard quadrupled its labor force to 70,000 by 1943, while the Radford Arsenal outside Blacksburg had 22,000 workers making explosives.
Civil Rights to present
Protests against segregated schools started by Barbara Rose Johns in 1951 in Farmville led to the lawsuit Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. This case, filed by Richmond natives Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, was decided in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, which rejected the segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal“. But, in 1956, under the policy of “massive resistance” led by the influential segregationist Senator Harry F. Byrd and his Byrd Organization, the Commonwealth prohibited desegregated local schools from receiving state or private funding as part of the Stanley Plan. After schools in many districts began closing in September 1958, state and district courts ruled the plan unconstitutional, and the first Black students integrated schools in Arlington and Norfolk in January 1959. Prince Edward County responded in June 1959 by closing their whole school system, until the Supreme Court ordered all Virginia schools to be open and integrated in May 1964.
The civil rights movement gained many participants during the 1960s. They achieved the moral force and support to gain passage of national legislation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1967, the Supreme Court also struck down the state’s ban on interracial marriage with Loving v. Virginia. From 1969 to 1971, state legislators under Governor Mills Godwin rewrote the constitution, after goals such as the repeal of Jim Crow laws had been achieved. In 1977, Black members became the majority of Richmond’s city council, in 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected as governor in the United States, and in 1992, Bobby Scott became the first Black congressman from Virginia since 1888.
The Cold War led to the expansion of national defense government programs housed in offices in Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., and correlative population growth. The Central Intelligence Agency in Langley was involved in various Cold War events, including as the target of Soviet espionage activities. The Pentagon, built during World War II as the headquarters of the Department of Defense, was one of the targets of the September 11, 2001 attacks; 189 people died at the site when a jet passenger plane was flown into the building. Mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Virginia Beach in 2019 led to passage of gun control measures in 2020. Racial injustice and the presence of Confederate monuments in Virginia have also led to large demonstrations, including in August 2017, when a white supremacist drove his car into protesters, killing one, and in June 2020, when protests that were part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement brought about the removal of statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond and elsewhere.
Cities and towns
Virginia is divided into 95 counties and 38 independent cities, the latter acting in many ways as county-equivalents. This general method of treating cities and counties on par with each other is unique to Virginia; only three other independent cities exist elsewhere in the United States, each in a different state. The differences between counties and cities are small and have to do with how each assess new taxes, whether a referendum is necessary to issue bonds, and with the application of Dillon’s Rule, which limits the authority of cities and counties to countermand acts expressly allowed by the General Assembly. Within counties, there can also be incorporated towns, which operate their own governments, and unincorporated communities, which don’t. Virginia does not have any further political subdivisions, such as villages or townships.
Over 3.1 million people, 36% of Virginians, live in Northern Virginia, which is part of the larger Washington metropolitan area and the Northeast megalopolis. Fairfax County is the most populous locality in the state, with more than 1.1 million residents, although that does not include its county seat Fairfax City, which is one of the independent cities. Fairfax County has a major urban business and shopping center in Tysons Corner, Virginia’s largest office market. Neighboring Prince William County is Virginia’s second most populous county, with a population exceeding 450,000, and is home to Marine Corps Base Quantico, the FBI Academy and Manassas National Battlefield Park. Loudoun County, with its county seat at Leesburg, is the fastest-growing county in the state. Arlington County is the smallest self-governing county in the U.S. by land area, and has considered reorganizing as an independent city due to its high density.
Richmond is the capital of Virginia, and its city proper has a population of over 230,000, while its metropolitan area has over 1.2 million. As of 2019, Virginia Beach is the most populous independent city in the Commonwealth, with Chesapeake and Norfolk second and third, respectively. The three are part of the larger Hampton Roads metropolitan area, which has a population over 1.7 million people and is the site of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk. Suffolk, which includes a portion of the Great Dismal Swamp, is the largest city by area at 429.1 square miles (1,111 km2). In western Virginia, Roanoke city and Montgomery County, part of the Blacksburg–Christiansburg metropolitan area, both have surpassed a population of over 100,000 since 2018.
Largest Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas in Virginia
|4||Roanoke||313,222||14||Big Stone Gap||41,364|
The United States Census Bureau found the state resident population was 8,631,393 on April 1, 2020, a 7.9% increase since the 2010 United States Census. Another 23,149 Virginians live overseas, giving the state a total population of 8,654,542. Virginia has the fourth largest overseas population of U.S. states due to its federal employees and military personnel. The birth rate in Virginia was 11.4 per 1,000 over five years, and the median age was 38.4 years old, both identical to the national averages as of 2019. As of 2010, the center of population was located in Louisa County, near Richmond.
Immigration between 2010 and 2018 from outside the United States resulted in a net increase of 159,627 people, and migration within the country produced a net increase of 155,205 people. Aside from Virginia, the top birth state for Virginians is New York, having overtaken North Carolina in the 1990s, with the Northeast accounting for the largest number of domestic migrants into the state by region. About twelve percent of residents were born outside the United States as of 2020. El Salvador was the most common foreign country of birth, with India, South Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and the Philippines as other common birthplaces.
The state’s most populous ethnic group, Non-Hispanic whites, has declined as a proportion of population from 76% in 1990 to 61% in 2019, as other ethnicities have increased. Immigrants from the islands of Britain and Ireland settled throughout the Commonwealth during the colonial period, a time when roughly three-fourths of immigrants came as indentured servants. Those who identify on the census as having “American ethnicity” are predominantly of English descent, but have ancestors who have been in North America for so long they choose to identify simply as American. The western mountains have many settlements that were founded by Scotch-Irish immigrants before the American Revolution. There are also sizable numbers of people of German descent in the northwestern mountains and Shenandoah Valley, and 10.6% of Virginians are estimated to have German ancestry, as of 2019.
The largest minority group in Virginia are Blacks and African Americans, who include about one-fifth of the population. Virginia was a major destination of the Atlantic slave trade, and the first generations of enslaved men, women, and children were brought primarily from Angola and the Bight of Biafra. The Igbo ethnic group of what is now southern Nigeria were the single largest African group among slaves in Virginia. Blacks in Virginia also have more European ancestry than those in other southern states, and DNA analysis shows many have asymmetrical male and female ancestry contributions from before the Civil War, evidence of European fathers and African or Native American mothers during the time of slavery. Though the Black population was reduced by the Great Migration to northern industrial cities in the first half of the 20th century, since 1965 there has been a reverse migration of Blacks returning south. The Commonwealth has the highest number of Black-white interracial marriages in the United States, and 3.2% of Virginians describe themselves as biracial.
More recent immigration in the late 20th century and early 21st century has resulted in new communities of Hispanics and Asians. As of 2019, 9.8% of Virginia’s total population describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino, and 6.9% as Asian. The state’s Hispanic population rose by 92% from 2000 to 2010, with two-thirds of Hispanics in the state living in Northern Virginia. Hispanic citizens in Virginia have higher median household incomes and educational attainment than the general state population. Northern Virginia also has a significant population of Vietnamese Americans, whose major wave of immigration followed the Vietnam War. Korean Americans have migrated more recently, attracted by the quality school system. The Filipino American community has about 45,000 in the Hampton Roads area, many of whom have ties to the U.S. Navy and armed forces.
Tribal membership in Virginia is complicated by the legacy of the state’s “pencil genocide” of intentionally categorizing Native Americans and Blacks together, and many tribal members do have African and European ancestry. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 0.5% of Virginians were American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.1% were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Virginia has extended state recognition to eleven indigenous tribes resident in the state. Seven tribes also have federal recognition, including six that were recognized in 2018 after passage of bill named for activist Thomasina Jordan. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi have reservations on tributaries of the York River in the Tidewater region.
As of 2010, 85.9% (6,299,127) of Virginia residents age five and older spoke English at home as a first language, while 14.1% (1,036,442) did not—6.4% (470,058) spoke Spanish, 0.8% (56,518) Korean, 0.6% (45,881) Vietnamese, 0.6% (42,418) Chinese (including Mandarin), and 0.6% (40,724) Tagalog. English was passed as the Commonwealth’s official language by statutes in 1981 and again in 1996, though the status is not mandated by the Constitution of Virginia.
The Piedmont region is known for its dialect’s strong influence on Southern American English. While a more homogenized American English is found in urban areas, various accents are also used, including the Tidewater accent, the Old Virginia accent, and the anachronistic Elizabethan of Tangier Island.
|Religious groups (2014 est.)|
Virginia is predominantly Christian and Protestant; Baptist denominations combined to form largest group with over a quarter of the population as of 2014, and around 763,655 total members as of 2010. Baptist denominational groups in Virginia include the Baptist General Association of Virginia, with about 1,400 member churches, which supports both the Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia with more than 500 affiliated churches, which supports the Southern Baptist Convention. Roman Catholics are the second-largest religious group with 673,853 members. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington includes most of Northern Virginia’s Catholic churches, while the Diocese of Richmond covers the rest.
The Virginia Conference is the regional body of the United Methodist Church in most of the Commonwealth, while the Holston Conference represents much of extreme Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Synod is responsible for the congregations of the Lutheran Church. Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Congregationalist, and Episcopalian adherents each comprised less than two percent of the population as of 2010. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Southern Virginia, and Southwestern Virginia support the various Episcopal churches.
In November 2006, fifteen conservative Episcopal churches voted to split from the Diocese of Virginia over the ordination of openly gay bishops and clergy in other dioceses of the Episcopal Church; these churches continue to claim affiliation with the larger Anglican Communion through other bodies outside the United States. Though Virginia law allows parishioners to determine their church’s affiliation, the diocese claimed the secessionist churches’ buildings and properties. The resulting property law case, ultimately decided in favor of the mainline diocese, was a test for Episcopal churches nationwide.
Among other religions, adherents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints constitute one percent of the population, with two hundred congregations in Virginia as of 2017. Fairfax Station is the site of the Ekoji Buddhist Temple, of the Jodo Shinshu school, and the Hindu Durga Temple, while Sterling is home to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, which, with its eleven satellite branches, considers itself the second largest Muslim mosque community in the country. While the state’s Jewish population is small, organized Jewish sites date to 1789 with Congregation Beth Ahabah. Megachurches in the Commonwealth include Thomas Road Baptist Church, Immanuel Bible Church, and McLean Bible Church, and the twenty percent who describe themselves as unaffiliated also include seven percent who say religion is important to them, but may not attend regular services with formal membership. Several Christian universities are also based in the state, including Regent University, Liberty University, and the University of Lynchburg.
Virginia’s economy has diverse sources of income, including local and federal government, military, farming and high-tech. The state’s average earnings per job was $63,281, the 11th-highest nationwide, and the gross domestic product (GDP) was $476.4 billion in 2018, the 13th-largest among U.S. states. Prior to the COVID-19 recession, in March 2020, Virginia had 4.36 million people employed with an unemployment rate of 2.9%, but jobless claims due to the virus soared over 10% in early April 2020, before leaving off around 5% in November 2020. In May 2021, it was 4.5%, which was the 19th-lowest nationwide. Virginia however ranks worst in the nation for timely review of unemployment benefits due to the pandemic.
Virginia has a median household income of $72,600, 11th-highest nationwide, and a poverty rate of 10.7%, 12th-lowest nationwide, as of 2018. Montgomery County outside Blacksburg has the highest poverty rate in the state, with 28.5% falling below the U.S. Census poverty thresholds. Loudoun County meanwhile has the highest median household income in the nation, and the wider Northern Virginia region is among the highest-income regions nationwide. As of 2013, six of the twenty highest-income counties in the United States, including the two highest, as well as three of the fifty highest-income towns, are all located in Northern Virginia. Though the Gini index shows Virginia has less income inequality than the national average, the state’s middle class is also smaller than the majority of states.
Virginia’s business environment has been ranked highly by various publications. In 2019, CNBC named Virginia their Top State for Business, with its deductions being mainly for the high cost of living, while Forbes magazine ranked it fourth, though number one in quality of life. Additionally, in 2014 a survey of 12,000 small business owners found Virginia to be one of the most friendly states for small businesses. Oxfam America however ranked Virginia in November 2020 as the fourteenth worst state to work in, with pluses for new worker protections from sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination, but negatives for laws on organized labor and the low minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Virginia has been an employment-at-will state since 1906 and a “right to work” state since 1947. The minimum wage was raised to $9.50 an hour in April 2021, with plans to increase it to $12 in 2023.
Government agencies directly employ around 702,000 people, almost 17% of all employees, as of March 2021. Approximately twelve percent of all U.S. federal procurement money is spent in Virginia, the second-highest amount after California. As of September 2019, 124,870 active-duty personnel and 98,506 civilians work directly for the U.S. Department of Defense across the 27 military bases in the state and the headquarters at the Pentagon, and over 139,000 Virginians work for defense contracting firms, which received over $37.4 billion worth of contracts in the 2018 fiscal year. Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of veterans of any state, and the Hampton Roads area has the largest concentration of military personnel and assets of any metropolitan area in the world.
Other large federal agencies in Northern Virginia include the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In its state government, Virginia employs over 106,000 public employees, who combined have a median income of $52,401 as of November 2018.
Virginia was home to 653,193 separate firms in the 2012 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, with 54% of those majority male-owned and 36.2% majority female-owned. Approximately 28.3% of firms were also majority minority-owned, and 11.7% were veteran-owned. Twenty-one Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Virginia as of 2019, with the largest companies by revenue being Freddie Mac, General Dynamics, and Capital One. The largest by their number of employees are Dollar Tree in Chesapeake and Hilton Worldwide Holdings in McLean.
Virginia has the third highest concentration of technology workers and the fifth highest overall number among U.S. states as of 2020, with the 451,268 tech jobs accounting for 11.1% of all jobs in the state and earning a median salary of $98,292. Many of these jobs are in Northern Virginia, which hosts a large number of software, communications, and cybersecurity companies, particularly in the Dulles Technology Corridor and Tysons Corner areas. Amazon additionally selected Crystal City for its HQ2 in 2018, while Google expanded their Reston offices in 2019. Virginia became the worlds largest data center market in 2016, with Loudoun County specifically branding itself “Data Center Alley” due to the roughly 13.5 million square feet (1.25 km2) in use for data. In 2020, the state had the second highest average internet download speeds in the United States, with 193.1 Mbps. Computer chips first became the state’s highest-grossing export in 2006, and had a total export value of $827 million in 2020. Though in the top quartile for diversity based on the Simpson index, only 26% of tech employees in Virginia are women, and only 13% are Black or African American.
Tourism in Virginia supported an estimated 234,000 jobs in 2018, making tourism the state’s fifth largest industry. It generated $26 billion, an increase 4.4% from 2017. The state was eighth nationwide in domestic travel spending in 2018, with Arlington County the top tourist destination in the state by domestic spending, followed by Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and Virginia Beach. Virginia also saw 1.1 million international tourists in 2018, a five percent increase from 2017.
As of 2017, agriculture occupied 28% of the land in Virginia with 7.8 million acres (12,188 sq mi; 31,565 km2) of farmland. Nearly 54,000 Virginians work on the state’s 43,225 farms, which average 181 acres (0.28 sq mi; 0.73 km2). Though agriculture has declined significantly since 1960 when there were twice as many farms, it remains the largest single industry in Virginia, providing for over 334,000 jobs. Soybeans were the most profitable crop in Virginia in 2017, ahead of corn and cut flowers as other leading agricultural products. However, the ongoing China-U.S. trade war led many Virginia farmers to plant cotton instead of soybeans in 2019. Though it is no longer the primary crop, Virginia is still the third-largest producer of tobacco in the United States.
Virginia is also the country’s third-largest producer of seafood as of 2018, with sea scallops, oysters, Chesapeake blue crabs, menhaden, and hardshell clams as the largest seafood harvests by value, and France, Canada, and Hong Kong as the top export destinations. Commercial fishing supports 18,220 jobs as of 2020, while recreation fishing supports another 5,893. Eastern oyster harvests had increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to over 500,000 in 2013, but fell to 248,347 in 2019 because of low salinity in coastal waters due to heavy spring rains. Those same rains however made 2019 a record wine harvest for vineyards in the Northern Neck and along the Blue Ridge Mountains, which also attract 2.3 million tourists annually. Virginia has the seventh-highest number of wineries in the nation, with 307 as of 2020. Cabernet franc and Chardonnay are the most grown varieties.
Virginia collects personal income tax from those with incomes above a filing threshold; there are five income brackets, with rates ranging from 2.0% to 5.75% of taxable income. The state sales and use tax rate is 4.3%. There is an additional 1% local tax, for a total of a 5.3% combined sales tax on most Virginia purchases. The sales tax rate is higher in three regions: Northern Virginia (6%), Hampton Roads (6%) and the Historic Triangle (7%). Unlike the majority of states, Virginia collects sales tax on groceries, but at a lower rate than the general sales tax; the sales tax for food and certain essential personal hygiene goods is 2.5%.
Virginia’s property tax is set and collected at the local government level and varies throughout the Commonwealth. Real estate is also taxed at the local level based on one hundred percent of fair market value. As of fiscal year 2018, the median real estate tax rate per $100 of assessed taxable value was $1.07 for cities, $0.67 for counties, and $0.17 for towns; town rates are lower because towns (unlike cities) have a narrow range of responsibilities and are subordinate to counties. Of local government tax revenue, about 61% is generated from real property taxes; about 24% from tangible personal property, sales and use, and business license tax; and 15% from other taxes (such as restaurant meal taxes, public service corporation property tax, consumer utility tax, and hotel tax).
Virginia’s culture was popularized and spread across America and the South by figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee. Their homes in Virginia represent the birthplace of America and the South. Modern Virginia culture has many sources, and is part of the culture of the Southern United States. The Smithsonian Institution divides Virginia into nine cultural regions.
Besides the general cuisine of the Southern United States, Virginia maintains its own particular traditions. Virginia wine is made in many parts of the Commonwealth. Smithfield ham, sometimes called “Virginia ham”, is a type of country ham which is protected by state law, and can be produced only in the town of Smithfield. Virginia furniture and architecture are typical of American colonial architecture. Thomas Jefferson and many of the Commonwealth’s early leaders favored the Neoclassical architecture style, leading to its use for important state buildings. The Pennsylvania Dutch and their style can also be found in parts of the Commonwealth.
Literature in Virginia often deals with the Commonwealth’s extensive and sometimes troubled past. The works of Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Glasgow often dealt with social inequalities and the role of women in her culture. Glasgow’s peer and close friend James Branch Cabell wrote extensively about the changing position of gentry in the Reconstruction era, and challenged its moral code with Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice. William Styron approached history in works such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. Tom Wolfe has occasionally dealt with his southern heritage in bestsellers like I Am Charlotte Simmons. Mount Vernon native Matt Bondurant received critical acclaim for his historic novel The Wettest County in the World about moonshiners in Franklin County during prohibition. Virginia also names a state Poet Laureate.
Fine and performing arts
Virginia ranks near the middle of U.S. states in terms of public spending on the arts as of 2021, at just over half of the national average. The state government does fund some institutions, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Science Museum of Virginia. Other museums include the popular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art. Besides these sites, many open-air museums are located in the Commonwealth, such as Colonial Williamsburg, the Frontier Culture Museum, and various historic battlefields. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities works to improve the Commonwealth’s civic, cultural, and intellectual life.
Theaters and venues in the Commonwealth are found both in the cities and in suburbs. The Harrison Opera House, in Norfolk, is home of the Virginia Opera. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra operates in and around Hampton Roads. Resident and touring theater troupes operate from the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton. The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, designated the State Theatre of Virginia, won the first Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1948, while the Signature Theatre in Arlington won it in 2009. There is also a Children’s Theater of Virginia, Theatre IV, which is the second largest touring troupe nationwide. Notable music performance venues include The Birchmere, the Landmark Theater, and Jiffy Lube Live. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is located in Vienna and is the only national park intended for use as a performing arts center.
Virginia has launched many award-winning traditional musical artists and internationally successful popular music acts, as well as Hollywood actors. Virginia is known for its tradition in the music genres of old-time string and bluegrass, with groups such as the Carter Family and Stanley Brothers. The state’s African tradition is found through gospel, blues, and shout bands, with both Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey coming from Newport News. Contemporary Virginia is also known for folk rock artists like Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz, hip hop stars like Pharrell Williams, Missy Elliott and Pusha T, as well as thrash metal groups like GWAR and Lamb of God. Several members of country music band Old Dominion grew up in the Roanoke area, and took their band name from Virginia’s state nickname.
Many counties and localities host county fairs and festivals. The Virginia State Fair is held at the Meadow Event Park every September. Also in September is the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach, which celebrates the city, the waterfront, and regional artists. Norfolk’s Harborfest, in June, features boat racing and air shows. Fairfax County also sponsors Celebrate Fairfax! with popular and traditional music performances. The Virginia Lake Festival is held during the third weekend in July in Clarksville. On the Eastern Shore island of Chincoteague the annual Pony Penning of feral Chincoteague ponies at the end of July is a unique local tradition expanded into a week-long carnival.
The Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival is a six-day festival held annually in Winchester which includes parades and bluegrass concerts. The Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, begun in 1935, is one of the oldest and largest such events worldwide, and Wolf Trap hosts the Wolf Trap Opera Company, which produces an opera festival every summer. Two important film festivals, the Virginia Film Festival and the VCU French Film Festival, are held annually in Charlottesville and Richmond, respectively.
The Hampton Roads area is the 42nd-largest media market in the United States as ranked by Nielsen Media Research, while the Richmond-Petersburg area is 54th and Roanoke–Lynchburg is 69th as of 2020. Northern Virginia is part of the much larger Washington, D.C. media market, which is the country’s 7th-largest.
There are 36 television stations in Virginia, representing each major U.S. network, part of 42 stations which serve Virginia viewers including those broadcasting from neighboring jurisdictions. According the Federal Communications Commission, 595 FCC-licensed FM radio stations broadcast in Virginia, with 239 such AM stations as of 2020. The nationally available Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is headquartered in Arlington. Independent PBS affiliates exist throughout Virginia, and the Arlington PBS member station WETA-TV produces programs such as the PBS NewsHour and Washington Week.
The most circulated native newspapers in the Commonwealth are Norfolk’s The Virginian-Pilot with around 132,000 subscribers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch with 86,219, and The Roanoke Times as of 2018. The paper with nation’s most daily readers, USA Today, with 520,000 daily subscriptions, is headquartered in McLean. USA Today is the flagship publication of Gannett, Inc., which merged with GateHouse Media in 2019, and operates over one hundred local newspapers nationwide. In Northern Virginia, The Washington Post is the dominant newspaper and provides local coverage for the region. Politico, which covers national politics, has its offices in Rosslyn.
Virginia’s educational system consistently ranks in the top five states on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, with Virginia students outperforming the average in all subject areas and grade levels tested. The 2020 Quality Counts report ranked Virginia’s K–12 education eighth in the country, with a letter grade of B. All school divisions must adhere to educational standards set forth by the Virginia Department of Education, which maintains an assessment and accreditation regime known as the Standards of Learning to ensure accountability.
Public K–12 schools in Virginia are generally operated by the counties and cities, and not by the state. As off the 2018–19 academic year, a total of 1,290,576 students were enrolled in 2,293 local and regional schools in the Commonwealth, including eight charter schools, and an additional 98 alternative and special education centers across 133 school divisions. 2018 marked the first decline in overall enrollment in public schools, by just over 2,000 students, since 1984. Besides the general public schools in Virginia, there are Governor’s Schools and selective magnet schools. The Governor’s Schools are a collection of more than forty regional high schools and summer programs intended for gifted students. The Virginia Council for Private Education oversees the regulation of 483 state accredited private schools. An additional 17,283 students receive homeschooling.
In 2019, 91.5% of high school students graduated on-time after four years, an increase of two percent from 2013, and 89.3% of adults over the age 25 had their high school diploma. Virginia has one of the smaller racial gaps in graduation rates among U.S. states, with 89.7% of Black students graduating on time, compared to 94.7% of white students and 97.5% of Asian students. Despite ending school segregation in the 1960s, seven percent of Virginia’s public schools were rated as “intensely segregated” by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA in 2019, and the number has risen since 1989, when only three percent were. Virginia has comparatively large public school districts, typically comprising entire counties or cities, and this helps mitigate funding gaps seen in other states such that non-white districts average slightly more funding, $255 per student as of 2019, than majority white districts. Elementary schools, with Virginia’s smallest districts, were found to be more segregated than state middle or high schools by a 2019 VCU study.
Colleges and universities
As of 2019, Virginia has the sixth highest percent of residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher, with 38.2%. As of that year, there are 169 colleges and universities in Virginia. In the 2021 U.S. News & World Report ranking of national public universities, the University of Virginia is ranked 4th, the College of William and Mary is 11th, Virginia Tech is 29th, George Mason University is 65th, and Virginia Commonwealth University is 77th. James Madison University is also ranked the third best regional university in the South. There are 124 private institutions in the state, including Washington and Lee University and the University of Richmond, which are ranked as the country’s 9th and 22nd best liberal arts colleges respectively.
Virginia Tech and Virginia State University are the state’s land-grant universities, and Virginia State is one of five historically black colleges and universities in Virginia. The Virginia Military Institute is the oldest state military college. Virginia also operates 23 community colleges on 40 campuses which enrolled 218,985 degree-seeking students during the 2020–2021 school year. In 2021, the state made community college free for most low- and middle-income students. George Mason University had the largest on-campus enrollment at 38,542 students as of 2021, though the private Liberty University had the largest total enrollment in the state, with 88,283 online and 15,105 on-campus students in Lynchburg as of 2019.
Virginia has a mixed health record, and was ranked as the 21st for both overall health outcomes and healthy behaviors in the state according to the 2020 United Health Foundation’s Health Rankings. Among U.S. states, Virginia has the nineteenth lowest rate of both premature deaths, with 6,863 per 100,000, and infant mortality, with 5.61 per 1,000 live births. The rate of uninsured Virginians dropped to 7.9% in 2020, following an expansion of Medicare the year before. Falls Church and Loudoun County were both ranked in the top ten healthiest communities in 2020 by U.S. News & World Report.
There are however racial and social health disparities. With high rates of heart disease and diabetes, African Americans in Virginia had an average life expectancy four years lower than whites and twelve years lower than Asian Americans and Latinos in 2017, and were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. African-American mothers are also three times more likely to die while giving birth in the state. Mortality rates among white middle-class Virginians have also been rising, with drug overdose, alcohol poisoning, and suicide as leading causes. Suicides in the state increased by 21% between 2009 and 2018.
Weight is an issue for many Virginians, and 31.9% of adults and 13% of 10- to 17-year-olds are obese as of 2020. Additionally, 35% of adults are overweight and 23.3% do not exercise regularly. Virginia banned smoking in bars and restaurants in January 2010, and the percent of tobacco smokers in the state has declined from nineteen percent in that year to fourteen percent in 2020. Virginia does have above average rates of immunization nationwide, ranking eighteenth for childhood immunization and eleventh for flu vaccinations. In 2008, Virginia became the first U.S. state to mandate the HPV vaccine for girls for school attendance, and 55.2% of adolescents have the vaccine.
The Virginia Board of Health regulates health care facilities, and there are ninety hospitals in Virginia with a combined 17,706 hospital beds as of 2020. Notable examples include Inova Fairfax Hospital, the largest hospital in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and the VCU Medical Center, located on the medical campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. The University of Virginia Medical Center, part of the University of Virginia Health System, is highly ranked in endocrinology according to U.S. News & World Report. Virginia has a ratio of 230.3 primary care physicians per 10,000 residents, the fifteenth worst rate nationally, and only 193.2 mental health providers per that number, the eleventh worst nationwide. As of 2021, the state’s eight public mental health care facilities were 96% full, causing delays in admissions.
Because of the 1932 Byrd Road Act, the state government controls most of Virginia’s roads, instead of a local county authority as is usual in other states. As of 2018, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) owns and operates 57,867 miles (93,128 km) of the total 70,105 miles (112,823 km) of roads in the state, making it the third largest state highway system in the United States. Traffic on Virginia’s roads is among the worst in the nation according to the 2018 American Community Survey. The average commute time of 28.4 minutes is the eighth longest among U.S. states, and the Washington Metropolitan Area, which includes Northern Virginia, has the second worst rate of traffic congestion among U.S. cities. About 9.2% of workers in Virginia reported carpooling to work in 2018, while 4.4% commuted on public transit, and Virginia hit peak car usage before the year 2000, making it one of the first such states.
There were over 171.9 million trips taken on public transit in Virginia in 2019, over 62% of which were done on the Washington Metro transit system, which serves Arlington and Alexandria, and extends into Loudoun and Fairfax Counties. Virginia has Amtrak passenger rail service along several corridors, and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) maintains two commuter lines into Washington, D.C. from Fredericksburg and Manassas. VRE averaged over 90,000 weekly riders in 2019, but saw a dramatic 90% decline in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Major freight railroads in Virginia include Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and in 2021 the state finalized a deal to purchase 223 miles (359 km) of track and over 350 miles (560 km) of right of way from CSX for future passenger rail service. Commuter buses include the Fairfax Connector, FRED buses in Fredericksburg, and OmniRide in Prince William County. VDOT operates several free ferries throughout Virginia, the most notable being the Jamestown Ferry which connects Jamestown to Scotland Wharf across the James River.
Virginia has five major airports: Washington Dulles International and Reagan Washington National in Northern Virginia, both of which handle more than twenty million passengers a year, Richmond International southeast of the state capital, and Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and Norfolk International in Hampton Roads. Several other airports offer limited commercial passenger service, and sixty-six public airports serve the state’s aviation needs. The Virginia Port Authority‘s main seaports are those in Hampton Roads, which carried 60,014,070 short tons (54,443,850 t) of total cargo in 2019, the seventh most of United States ports. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is the site of Wallops Flight Facility, a rocket launch center owned by NASA, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a commercial spaceport. Space tourism is also offered through Vienna-based Space Adventures.
Law and government
In 1619, the first Virginia General Assembly met at Jamestown Church, and included 22 locally elected representatives, making Virginia’s legislature the oldest in the North America. The elected members became the House of Burgesses in 1642, and governed with the Governor’s Council, which was appointed by the British monarchy, until Virginia declared independence from Britain in 1776. The current General Assembly is the 161st since that year. The government today functions under the seventh Constitution of Virginia, which was approved by voters in 1971 and is similar to the federal structure in that it provides for three branches: a strong legislature, an executive, and a unified judicial system.
Virginia’s legislature is bicameral with a 100-member House of Delegates and 40-member Senate, who together write the laws for the Commonwealth. Delegates serve two-year terms, while senators serve four-year terms, with the most recent elections for both taking place in November 2019. The executive department includes the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, who are elected every four years in separate elections, with the next taking place in November 2021. The governor must be at least thirty years old and incumbent governors cannot run for re-election, however the lieutenant governor and attorney general can, and governors can and have served non-consecutive terms. The lieutenant governor is the official head of the Senate, and is responsible for breaking ties. The House elects a Speaker of the House and the Senate elects a President pro tempore, who presides when the lieutenant governor isn’t present, and both houses elect a clerk and majority and minority leaders. The governor also nominates their eleven cabinet members and others who head various state departments.
State budgets are biannual and proposed by the governor in even years. Based on data through 2018, the Pew Center on the States found Virginia’s government to be above average in running surpluses, and U.S. News and World Report ranked the state eighteenth in fiscal stability. The legislature starts on the second Wednesday of every year, and meets for up to 48 days in odd years and 60 days in even years to allow more time for the state budget. Special sessions can be called either by the governor or with agreement of two-thirds of both houses, and seventeen special sessions have been called since 2000, typically to work on legislation on preselected issues. Though not a full-time legislature, the Assembly is classified as a hybrid because special sessions are not limited by the state constitution and often last several months.
The judges and justices who make up Virginia’s judicial system, also the oldest in America, are elected by a majority vote in both the House and Senate without input from the governor, one way Virginia’s legislature is stronger than its executive. The system consists of a hierarchy from the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Court of Appeals of Virginia to the Circuit Courts, the trial courts of general jurisdiction, and the lower General District Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts. The Supreme Court has seven justices who serve twelve-year terms, with a mandatory retirement age of 73. The Supreme Court selects its own Chief Justice from among their seven members, who is informally limited to two four-year terms. Virginia was the last state to guarantee an automatic right of appeal for all civil and criminal cases, and their Court of Appears is increasing from eleven to seventeen judges in 2021.
The Code of Virginia is the statutory law, and consists of the codified legislation of the General Assembly. Virginia has no “pocket veto,” and bills will become law if the governor chooses to neither approve nor veto legislation. The largest law enforcement agency in Virginia is the Virginia State Police, with 3,022 sworn and civilian members as of 2018. The Virginia Capitol Police protect the legislature and executive department, and are the oldest police department in the United States. The governor can also call upon the Virginia National Guard, which consists of approximately 7,200 army soldiers, 1,200 airmen, 300 Defense Force members, and 400 civilians.
Virginia abolished the death penalty in 2021. Over 1,300 people have been executed by the state since 1608, including 113 following the resumption of capital punishment in 1982. Virginia’s prison system incarcerates 30,936 people as of 2018, 53% of whom are Black, and the state has the sixteenth-highest rate of incarceration in the country, at 422 per 100,000 residents. Virginia ended prisoner parole in 1995. Virginia’s rate of recidivism of released felons who are re-convicted within three years and sentenced to a year or more is 23.1%, the lowest in the country as of 2019. Virginia has the fourth lowest violent crime rate and 13th-lowest property crime rate as of 2018. Between 2008 and 2017, arrests for drug-related crimes rose 38%, with 71% of those related to marijuana, which Virginia decriminalized in July 2020 and legalized in July 2021.
Over the 20th century, Virginia shifted from a largely rural, politically Southern and conservative state to a more urbanized, pluralistic, and politically moderate environment as both greater enfranchisement and demographic shifts have changed the electorate. Up until the 1970s, Virginia was a racially divided one-party state dominated by the Byrd Organization. They sought to stymie the political power of Northern Virginia, perpetuate segregation, and successfully restricted voter registration such that between 1905 and 1948, roughly one-third of votes in the state were cast by state employees and officeholders themselves, and voter turnout was regularly below ten percent. The organization used malapportionment to further control what areas of the Commonwealth were over-represented in the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress until ordered to end the practice by the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Mann and the 1965 Virginia Supreme Court decision in Wilkins v. Davis respectively.
Enforcement of federal civil rights legislation passed in the mid-1960s helped stop the state’s Jim Crow laws that effectively disfranchised African Americans, who have since become the most reliable bloc of Democratic voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made Virginia one of nine states that were required to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for changes to voting laws until the system for including states was struck down in 2013. A strict photo identification requirement, added under Governor Bob McDonnell in 2014, was repealed in 2020, and the Voting Rights Act of Virginia was passed in 2021, requiring preclearance from the state Attorney General for local election changes that could result in disenfranchisement, including closing or moving polling sites. Though many Jim Crow provisions were removed in Virginia’s 1971 constitution, a lifetime ban on voting for felony convictions was unchanged, and by 2016, up to twenty percent of African Americans in Virginia were disenfranchised because of prior felonies. That year, Governor Terry McAuliffe ended the lifetime ban and individually restored voting rights to over 200,000 ex-felons.
Regional differences also play a large part in Virginia politics. While urban and expanding suburban areas, including much of Northern Virginia, form the Democratic Party base, rural southern and western areas moved to support the Republican Party in response to its “southern strategy“. Rural Democratic support has nevertheless persisted in union-influenced Roanoke in Southwest Virginia, college towns such as Charlottesville and Blacksburg, and the southeastern Black Belt Region. Educational attainment and gender have become strong indicators of political alignment, with the majority of women in Virginia supporting Democratic presidential candidates since 1980. Strong international immigration and domestic migration into the state have also increased the proportion of eligible voters born outside the state from 44% in 1980 to 55% in 2019.
State elections in Virginia occur in odd-numbered years, with executive department elections occurring in years following U.S. presidential elections and Senate elections occurring in the years prior to presidential elections, as both have four-year terms. House of Delegates elections take place concurrent with each of those elections as members have two-year terms. National politics often play a role in state election outcomes, and Virginia has elected governors of the party opposite the U.S. president in ten of the last eleven contests, with only Terry McAuliffe beating the trend.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, was elected Governor in the 2013 elections by two percentage points during Barack Obama‘s second presidential term. Republicans, however, held a super-majority (68–32) of seats in the House of Delegates, which they had first gained in the 2011 state elections. Republicans also held a one-vote majority the state senate, which they then maintained in the 2015 election. Eleven house district lines used in these elections, drawn following the 2010 U.S. Census, were later judged unconstitutional for discriminating against African Americans. The 2011 and 2015 elections also had the lowest voter turnout in recent history, with just 28.6% and 29.1% of registered voters participating respectively.
The 2017 statewide elections resulted in Democrats holding the three highest offices, with outgoing lieutenant governor Ralph Northam winning the governorship, Justin Fairfax elected lieutenant governor, and Mark Herring continuing as attorney general. In concurrent House of Delegates elections, Democrats flipped fifteen of the Republicans’ previous sixteen-seat majority. Control of the House came down to the tied election in the 94th district, which was won by Republicans through drawing of lots, giving the party a slim 51–49 majority in the 2018–19 legislative sessions. Despite a political crisis that February, Democrats took full control of the General Assembly in the November 2019 elections, the first after several districts were redrawn because of discrimination. Voters in 2020 passed a referendum to give control of drawing both congressional and state legislative districts to a commission of eight citizens and four legislators from each of the two major parties, rather than the legislature.
Though Virginia was considered a “swing state” in the 2008 presidential election, Virginia’s thirteen electoral votes were carried in that election and the three since by Democratic candidates, including Joe Biden, who won by over ten percent in 2020, suggesting the state has shifted to being reliably Democratic in presidential elections. Virginia had previously voted for Republican presidential candidates in thirteen out of fourteen presidential elections from 1952 to 2004, including ten in a row from 1968 to 2004, but hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate statewide since 2009. Virginia currently holds its presidential primary election on Super Tuesday, the same day as thirteen other states, with the most recent held on March 3, 2020.
Republican Senator George Allen lost U.S. Senate races in 2006, to Democratic newcomer Jim Webb, and again in 2012, to Webb’s replacement, former Governor Tim Kaine. In 2008, Democrats also won the other Senate seat when former Governor Mark Warner was elected to replace retiring Republican John Warner. In the 2010 mid-term elections, the first under President Obama, Republicans flipped three United States House of Representatives seats from the Democrats, while in the 2018 mid-terms, the first under President Trump, Democrats flipped three seats from Republicans. Of the state’s eleven seats in the House of Representatives, Democrats currently hold seven and Republicans hold four.
Virginia is the most populous U.S. state without a major professional sports league franchise. The reasons for this include the lack of any dominant city or market within the state, a reluctance to publicly finance stadiums, and the proximity of teams in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Charlotte, and Raleigh. A proposed arena in Virginia Beach designed for an NBA franchise became the latest unsuccessful sports initiative when the city council there ended support in 2017. Virginia Beach had previously been considered for an NBA franchise in 1987, which ultimately became the Charlotte Hornets. The Virginia Squires of the ABA started in Norfolk in 1970, but lost momentum after trading “Dr. J” Julius Erving and folded just one month before the ABA–NBA merger in 1976.
Five minor league baseball and two mid-level hockey teams play in Virginia. Norfolk is host to two: The Triple-A Norfolk Tides and the ECHL‘s Norfolk Admirals. The Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels began playing at The Diamond in 2010, while the Fredericksburg Nationals, Lynchburg Hillcats, and Salem Red Sox play in the Low-A East league. Loudoun United FC, the reserve team of D.C. United, debuted in the USL Championship in 2019, while the Richmond Kickers of the USL League One have operated since 1993 and are the only team in their league to win both the league championship and the U.S. Open Cup in the same year. The Washington Football Team also have their headquarters in Ashburn and their training facility in Richmond, and the Washington Capitals practice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Ballston.
Virginia has many professional caliber golf courses including Kingsmill Resort outside Williamsburg, which hosts an LPGA Tour tournament in May, and the Country Club of Virginia outside Richmond, which hosts a charity classic on the men’s senior tour in October. NASCAR currently schedules Cup Series races on two tracks in Virginia: Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway. Virginia natives currently competing in the series include Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler. Hampton Roads has produced several Olympic gold medalists, including Gabby Douglas, the first African American to win gymnastics individual all-around gold, and LaShawn Merritt and Francena McCorory, who helped the U.S. men’s and women’s 4 × 400 metres relay teams respectively to gold at the 2016 Rio games. Major long-distance races in the state include the Richmond Marathon, the Blue Ridge Marathon on the Parkway, and the Monument Avenue 10K.
In the absence of professional sports, several of Virginia’s collegiate sports programs have attracted strong followings, with a 2015 poll showing that 34% of Virginians were fans of the Virginia Cavaliers and 28% were fans of the rival Virginia Tech Hokies, making both more popular than the surveyed regional professional teams. The men’s and women’s college basketball programs of the Cavaliers, VCU Rams, and Old Dominion Monarchs have combined for 63 regular season conference championships and 48 conference tournament championships between them as of 2021. The Hokies football team sustained a 27-year bowl streak between 1993 and 2019; James Madison Dukes football won FCS NCAA Championships in both 2004 and 2016. The overall UVA men’s athletics programs won the national Capital One Cup in both 2015 and 2019, and lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in NCAA championships.
Fourteen universities in total compete in NCAA Division I, with multiple programs each in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Atlantic 10 Conference, Big South Conference, and Colonial Athletic Association. Three historically Black schools compete in the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and two others (Hampton and Norfolk State) compete in Division I. Several smaller schools compete in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference and the USA South Athletic Conference of NCAA Division III. The NCAA currently holds its Division III championships in football, men’s basketball, volleyball, and softball in Salem. Virginia does not allow state appropriated funds to be used for either operational or capital expenses for intercollegiate athletics.
High school sports
Virginia is also home to several of the nation’s top high school basketball programs, including Paul VI Catholic High School and Oak Hill Academy, the latter of which has won nine national championships. In the 2018–2019 school year, 174,224 high school students participated in fourteen girls sports and thirteen boys sports managed by the Virginia High School League, with the most popular sports being football, outdoor track and cross country, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball, and volleyball. Youth soccer leagues outside of the high school system are also popular in the state, and 18 teams from Virginia have won national championships, seventh-most among U.S. states. Access to youth soccer in Virginia however has been found to be highly correlated to race and median household income, with opportunities almost completely disappearing in areas where the non-white population exceeded 90%, particularly in the Southwest and Southside regions of the Commonwealth.
The state nickname is its oldest symbol, though it has never been made official by law. Virginia was given the title “Dominion” by King Charles II of England at the time of The Restoration, because Virginia was home to many loyalists during the English Civil War, and the present moniker, “Old Dominion” is a reference to that title. Charles’s supporters were called Cavaliers, and “The Cavalier State” nickname was popularized after the American Civil War to romanticize the antebellum period. Sports teams from the University of Virginia are called the Cavaliers. The other nickname, “Mother of Presidents”, is also historic, as eight Virginians have served as President of the United States, including four of the first five.
The state’s motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis, translates from Latin as “Thus Always to Tyrants”, and is used on the state seal, which is then used on the flag. While the seal was designed in 1776, and the flag was first used in the 1830s, both were made official in 1930. The majority of the other symbols were made official in the late 20th century. The Virginia reel is among the square dances classified as the state dance. In 1940, Virginia made “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” the state song, but it was retired in 1997 due to its references to slavery. In March 2015, Virginia named “Our Great Virginia“, which uses the tune of “Oh Shenandoah“, as the traditional state song and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as the popular state song.