But the handling of the state’s heritage has proved thorny for Virginia governors for decades.
L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor, in 1990 ordered a Virginia Air National Guard squadron to stop using an emblem that for 45 years had featured a Confederate battle flag. A poll taken the next month said the Democrat’s approval rating dropped 7 points, in large part because of the flap.
George Allen, a Republican, embraced Virginia’s Confederate heritage in his youth but decided to remove a Confederate flag from his log cabin office in 1993 after word of it spread during his successful gubernatorial campaign. A civil rights groups later criticized Mr. Allen for issuing Confederate History Month proclamations while he was governor of Virginia.
Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III walked a finer line but seemed to leave all sides grumbling. He proclaimed April Confederate History Month three of his four years in office but added a condemnation of slavery. In 2000, Mr. Gilmore replaced the proclamation with one commemorating both sides of the Civil War after threats of an economic boycott.
Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, declined to recognize April as Confederate History month as governor but won grudging respect from heritage groups in the process. Mr. Warner is now a U.S. senator.
“The Governor was honest and up-front with us,” Henry E. Kidd of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said in a statement at the time. “We impressed him as honest Virginia citizens who want to take back our heritage from hate racist groups who have dishonored our beloved flags and symbols and used them for their own political agendas. If we gained nothing else, we did gain his respect.”
In 2007, Gov. Tim Kaine marshalled the imagery of the state’s Confederate heritage and gave President Obama’s nascent candidacy a shot in the arm by becoming the first sitting governor outside Mr. Obama’s home state of Illinois to endorse him.
“Here we are in the heart of what was the Confederacy,” Mr. Obama said in front of the Executive Mansion in February 2007. “For me to be able to stand here as an African-American reflects the enormous progress this country has made.”