Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Lovable Facts About Virginia

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Virginia has played an outsized role in American history. It was where Britain’s international empire really began, where George Washington was born, was a key player in the Confederacy, and more. Here are 25 things you might not know about the Old Dominion.

1. It was the first successful British colony in North America. Jamestown, Virginia was settled in 1607 by John Smith and about 100 other men. As many as 90 percent of the settlers died of disease and starvation by 1610, but a few years later, a new strain of tobacco helped make the colony profitable, and the company funding the settlement, the Virginia Company, began recruiting women to come over to marry and start families. In 1624, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony.

2. It used to be a lot bigger. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Virginia encompassed parts of what are now Kentucky and West Virginia. Kentucky became its own state in 1792, and West Virginia seceded from the rest of Virginia rather than join the Confederacy. Virginia also originally ceded some land to form Washington D.C. However, that 31-square-mile plot of land (now Arlington County) was given back to the state in the 1840s, in part because Alexandria was a major slave market and some of its residents feared that slavery would be outlawed in the capital, as it was in 1850.

Image Credit: KMusser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

3. Its General Assembly is the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 1619 in Jamestown as the House of Burgesses, and though its form and powers have changed slightly over the centuries, it’s been meeting since then. It’s where George Washington tested out his early political chops, and where some of the most famous speeches of the American Revolution happened, including Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech.

4. In its early years, Virginia was a colony of servants. According to the Virginia Historical Society, three quarters of the English immigrants to Virginia in the 1600s were indentured servants at some point. About half of those indentured servants died before their seven years of servitude was up, but some did become relatively prosperous after gaining their freedom. However, by the 17th century, indentured servitude was largely replaced by slavery—which was permanent and hereditary.

5. Its judicial system influenced the early Supreme Court. Virginia established a system of superior courts in 1779, including the Supreme Court of Appeals. This appeals court became a model for the fledgling U.S. Supreme Court, whose powers and structure were not described in detail in the Constitution.

6. It’s very green. The state’s department of forestry reports that 62 percent of the state is forested.

Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Image Credit: Matt Kozlowski via Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 3.0

7. It’s the motherland of U.S. presidents. Quite a few Virginians have held the nation’s highest office, including four out of the first five (the Massachusetts-born John Adams being the only exception). A total of eight U.S. presidents have been born in the state.

8. As the country’s largest slave-holding state, it was a hotbed for anti-slavery rebellions. In 1831, Nat Turner led a band of more than 50 rebels in the largest slave uprising in American history. Decades later, in 1859, abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, hoping that slaves would join his group in their uprising (though none did). The raid inflamed tensions between the North and South, helping spark the Civil War.

9. It played a huge role in the Civil War. Virginia was home to the Confederate capital, Richmond, and adjacent to Washington, D.C., making it an important target for Union forces. Over the course of the war, 26 major battles and 2000 total military engagements took place in the state.

10. Yes, Williamsburg, Virginia, is home to a world-famous historic district. But it's also the location of the all-important Presidential Pet Museum. There, you can learn about George Washington's beloved horse, Nelson, James Buchanan's herd of elephants, and Calvin Coolidge's lion cubs. 

11. The first woman-run bank in the U.S. started in Richmond, Virginia. Maggie Lena Walker was a successful African American businesswoman who chartered a bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, in 1903. She was the bank’s first president and later chairman of the board of directors, providing black bank patrons a safe space to do business in the Jim Crow South. After a merger with two other banks, it survived as the oldest continuous black-run bank in the U.S. until 2009.

12. It has independent cities, which are not controlled by any county. Fairfax, the city, is not controlled by Fairfax, the county, for instance. Virginia is the only state that employs this system on a large scale. Out of the more than 40 independent cities in the U.S., only three are not located in Virginia: Baltimore, St. Louis, and Carson City, Nevada are also independent cities [PDF].

13. It has its own English dialect. Residents of Tangier Island, an island in the Chesapeake Bay where British colonists settled starting in the 1680s, speak in a very particular way due to the small island’s isolation. Islanders sound a lot more like Brits than Americans, and their speech includes variants of words that can be traced back to colonial English, like “spar grass” for asparagus. The dialect’s speakers use “backwards talk,” which is a lot like extreme sarcasm. For example, someone might say “you’re too soon” to mean “you’re late.” Other expressions include “got the mibs” which means you stink.

14. It’s a big source of labor for the federal government. More than 700,000 Virginians were employed by the government as of December 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Northern Virginia is home to the headquarters of numerous federal agencies, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Science Foundation, all the military and national security agencies in the Pentagon, the CIA, and more.

15. Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay, the state is the the largest seafood producer on the Atlantic coast and the third largest in America [PDF].

16. It’s serious about its favorite ham. State law specifies that to call something a Smithfield ham, it must be “processed, treated, smoked, aged, cured by the long-cure, dry salt method of cure and aged for a minimum period of six months” within the limits of Smithfield, Virginia. This cured ham was one of the nation’s first exports, selling in Bermuda in the late 1700s.

Image Credit: United States Coast Guard, PA2 Christopher Evanson via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

17. It has an annual pony swim. The island of Chincoteague, Virginia holds Pony Penning every year. Feral Chincoteague ponies are rounded up from the nearby Assateague Island and driven across the channel, as Maguerite Henry depicted in her 1947 children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. After their annual swim, some of the horses are sold to benefit the volunteer fire department.

18. It’s a wine destination. Virginia wine may not be as well-known as wine from Napa or France, but people have been making wine in the state since Thomas Jefferson planted European grapes at Monticello. However, wine made with local Virginia grapes was “mostly undrinkable” for the two centuries that followed, as a 2013 Washington Post story put it. After a successful reinvention, today Virginia is heralded as “the most exciting place for American wine right now.”

19. It’s got good schools. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is the nation’s third best high school, according to U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. In the publisher’s 2015 national rankings, Virginia’s high schools placed 10th. When the personal finance company WalletHub analyzed school district performance across the nation, Virginia ranked 11th.

20. It doesn’t have any major professional sports teams, making it the largest state without a major league sports franchise. While the Washington Redskins do have corporate headquarters in Ashburn, the team’s stadium is in Maryland.

American Foxhounds. Image Credit: iStock

21. It’s the birthplace of the American Foxhound. George Washington is considered the father of Virginia’s state dog breed, as the dogs are descended in part from a pack of French hounds gifted to the first president by the Marquis de Lafayette. The American Foxhound was one of the first American breeds.

22. Some notable entertainment powerhouses are from there. Ella Fitzgerald, June Carter Cash, Warren Beatty, Missy Elliott, and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan were all born in the state.

23. William Faulkner may be best known as a Mississippi writer, but he spent his last years as a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. The school still has most of his archives, and you can listen to some of his lectures on its website.

24. Its tourism bureau made advertising history. “Virginia is for lovers,” the state’s travel slogan since 1969, first appeared in an advertisement in Modern Bride. It got a spot on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame in 2009, and has also gotten shout-outs in several songs

25. It’s a surfing hot spot. The annual East Coast Surfing Championships, now in its 53rd year, is hosted in Virginia Beach. It bills itself as North America’s longest-running surf contest.

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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