James W. D. Bland

James William D. Bland (1844–1870)

James William D. Bland was a highly respected African American politician during his brief career. Born free and educated, voters in Appomattox and Prince Edward counties elected him one of their delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. He served on three major committees and reached out to conservative whites by opposing test oaths and disfranchisement for former Confederates. He was elected to the Senate of Virginia in 1869, where he became a conciliatory figure in a racially volatile era. Focusing on education, he sponsored a successful bill that established Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The next year Bland was among a large crowd attending a session of the Supreme Court of Appeals in the State Capitol. The floor collapsed, killing him and about sixty other observers. MORE...


Bland was born on February 27, 1844, in Prince Edward County, the son of Hercules Bland and Mary Bland. Bland's father was a free man and a cooper who purchased his wife to ensure their children's freedom. Bland was taught to read and write by a slave in the household of his mother's former owner. He worked with his father as a cooper and carpenter until 1864, when he entered an American Missionary Association school in Norfolk. For two years he studied there and also taught reading, geography, and arithmetic. Although the school refused to license Bland to teach because of alleged smoking and profanity, he was permitted to continue as a substitute.

Bland returned to Prince Edward County and on November 21, 1867, married Mary E. Clarke. A few weeks earlier, on October 22, 1867, Bland and a white former U.S. Army officer, Edgar Allan, had been elected to represent Appomattox and Prince Edward counties at a state constitutional convention that met from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868. Both men won overwhelming support from African Americans, who were voting for the first time, and they each received the support of only one white voter. Bland served on three of the major standing committees: the Elective Franchise and Qualifications for Office, Revision and Adjustment, and Rules and Regulations. He recommended amending the preamble to the constitution by replacing "men" with "mankind, irrespective of race or color." Other black delegates opposed the suggestion because they preferred to keep any references to color or race out of the constitution. Bland voted with the Radical Republican reformers on most major issues that came before the convention. In an attempt at racial conciliation, however, while defending the new constitutional provisions granting full political rights to blacks, he denounced other sections requiring test oaths of former Confederates and denying some of them the right to vote and hold public office. Both white and African American Republicans objected to Bland's comments. Even so, he was vindicated to some extent in 1869 when state voters rejected the provisions of the constitution that disfranchised former Confederates and when Virginia's senators and representatives won admission to Congress a year later despite this defeat of the disfranchisement provision.

Bland attended every state Republican convention held in 1867, 1868, and 1869. He was appointed assistant assessor of internal revenue for Charlotte and Appomattox counties in May 1869, and later that year he won election to the Senate of Virginia from the district consisting of Charlotte and Prince Edward counties. Taking his seat in October 1869, Bland served on the Committee for Courts of Justice. He supported public education as the state's highest priority and sponsored one major bill that passed a month after his death. The measure incorporated Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, enabling it to receive federal land-grant funding. Tall, graceful, and modest in demeanor, Bland was popular among his constituents and with the press. Respected by both races as a conscientious legislator, he was a voice of compromise and impartiality in an age of turmoil and partisanship. Political supporters and allies characterized him as an orator of extraordinary ability, and he made a strong impression when he met with members of Congress on the readmission of Virginia to the Union. Detractors accused him of emulating the speech, attire, and mannerisms of the Senate president. In the spring of 1870 Bland may have switched, or contemplated switching, from the Republican to the Democratic Party.

On April 27, 1870, Bland was in a large crowd attending a morning session of the Supreme Court of Appeals in the State Capitol during the appeal of a case concerning Richmond's contested mayoral election. Shortly after eleven o'clock the floor collapsed, killing Bland and about sixty other people. The Senate passed resolutions in his memory, and the General Assembly appropriated $52 for funeral expenses. Bland was buried in Farmville, where 200 mourners attended his interment.

Time Line

  • February 27, 1844 - James William D. Bland is born in Prince Edward County to Hercules Bland and Mary Bland.
  • 1864 - James William D. Bland enters an American Missionary Association school in Norfolk.
  • December 3, 1867–April 17, 1868 - James William D. Bland, representative from Appomattox and Prince Edward counties to the constitutional convention, serves on the Elective Franchise and Qualifications for Office, Revision and Adjustment, and Rules and Regulations committees.
  • 1868 - James William D. Bland attends the state Republican convention.
  • October 1869 - James William D. Bland takes his seat in the Senate of Virginia, where he represents the district consisting of Charlotte and Prince Edward counties and serves on the Committee for Courts of Justice.
  • April 27, 1870 - James William D. Bland dies when the floor collapses at the Virginia State Capitol. He is buried in Farmville.
Further Reading
Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. "Bland, James W. D." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 8–10. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Jordan, E. L., Jr., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James William D. Bland (1844–1870). (2014, August 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bland_James_William_D_1844-1870.

  • MLA Citation:

    Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James William D. Bland (1844–1870)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: December 16, 2013 | Last modified: August 17, 2014

Contributed by Ervin L. Jordan Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Ervin L. Jordan Jr. is an associate professor and research archivist at the University of Virginia's Small Special Collections Library.