Author: John T. Kneebone

associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University

Ku Klux Klan in Virginia

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), also known as the Klan or the Invisible Empire, is a right-wing extremist organization that has emerged at three distinct periods of U.S. history: from 1865 to the 1870s, from 1915 to 1944, and from the 1950s to the present. In the name of white supremacy and the protection of “one-hundred percent Americanism,” these Klan movements have targeted—through political rhetoric and violent actions—African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and organized labor, as well as prostitution and the alcohol industry. While antipathy from political elites ensured that the Klan never gained the foothold in Virginia that it had in other states, it was most prominent in the Commonwealth during the 1920s and resurged during the 1950s and 1960s to target civil rights activists. During Reconstruction (1865–1877), the Klan was active in Virginia only for a period of several months before the newspapers that had once supported it condemned its use of violence. After the events of World War I (1914–1918) encouraged a heightened fear of “anti-American elements,” the Klan was more efficiently mobilized and enjoyed a longer reign in Virginia, but was undone by legal restrictions on its violent activities, which included kidnappings, floggings, and at least one lynching. The Klan was reborn in the late 1950s to defend white supremacy against the threats of desegregation, but mounting pressure from civil rights groups led the white political establishment to commit to stamping out masked rallies and cross-burnings and making Virginia an inhospitable environment for Klan activity. The white political and social elite consistently decried the Klan, not because they were opposed to white supremacy but because they viewed the Klan’s methods as crass and unsophisticated. Klan klaverns still exist in the Commonwealth, but there has been little public notice or concern of them since the late 1960s.


D. Webster Davis (1862–1913)

D. Webster Davis was a teacher, poet, and lecturer in Richmond and Manchester. Born into slavery, Davis became a teacher in 1879, working in Richmond public schools for thirty-three years. In 1896 he was ordained a pastor. He also worked as an editor in the 1890s, but his literary ambitions centered mostly on poetry. His first collection was published in 1895 and a second two years later. Literary scholars have criticized his work for perpetuating racial stereotypes, but some argue that, read in context, the works illustrate the complicated position of the first generation of free, educated African Americans. Davis also became a popular lecturer, incorporating his poems into speeches. His notoriety augmented his position within Richmond and Manchester’s African American communities, where he held a series of leadership positions. Schools in Richmond and Staunton, as well as Virginia State University, named buildings in honor of Davis, and several Richmond city schools closed on the day of his funeral in 1913.


William S. Christian (1830–1910)

William S. Christian was a Confederate army officer, a temperance organization leader, and a doctor who worked in Middlesex County. In 1859 Christian raised a cavalry company known as the Middlesex Light Dragoons, which became Company C of the 55th Virginia Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Christian was wounded twice during the war: first at the Battle of Glendale (1862) and then again at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863). Christian participated in the Army of Northern Virginia‘s advance into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 and was captured by Union forces after the Gettysburg campaign (1863). He was imprisoned for less than a year at Johnson’s Island in Ohio, where he composed a long poem entitled “The Past.” After the war Christian returned to Urbanna to practice medicine. From 1876 to 1881 he served as state head of the Independent Order of Good Templars, an international temperance league. In 1880 he set up a segregated Dual Grand Lodge in Richmond, accommodating members who believed African Americans should be admitted to the society while pacifying white southerners who resisted that notion. Christian was also a member of the Medical Society of Virginia and Middlesex County’s board of health and, from 1890 to 1909, the superintendent of Middlesex County’s public schools. He died on December 10, 1910.


David Canada (fl. 1867–1869)

David Canada served as a member of the Convention of 1867–1868, though little about his life is known. Born enslaved, he worked as a Halifax County stonemason. He won election to the constitutional convention with widespread support from African American throughout the county. Although largely silent during the proceedings, Canada spoke in favor of the proposed constitution in meetings around the county. At one speech in July 1868, African Americans and whites began fighting. In the aftermath he reported that a group of whites threatened to kill him. The Halifax County military commissioner investigated the incident, but could not find evidence of violent intimidation and then placed Canada in jail. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict him. Canada ran for the House of Delegates in the 1869 election, but a coalition of moderate Republicans and Conservatives swept the county’s three seats. Canada disappeared from the public record after his defeat.


Thomas H. Brown (1864–1952)

Thomas H. Brown was a civic leader of African American communities in Petersburg and Hopewell. A child laborer, Brown worked his way up the social and financial ladder by joining civic associations and learning the undertaker’s trade. In 1893, he organized the People’s Memorial Cemetery Association to save Petersburg’s African American cemetery from deteriorating conditions and a possible foreclosure. Brown opened a funeral home in Hopewell about 1916 and remained involved with the locality during its World War I boom years. He was a civic leader in Petersburg and across the state for the rest of his life, continuing his involvement with the cemetery. The burial ground fell into disrepair after his death in 1952 but was revived after Petersburg took possession of it in 1986. Four years later People’s Memorial Cemetery formally opened as a city-owned historic site.


Edward W. Brown (d. 1929)

Edward W. Brown was a politician, editor, and minister. Born into slavery, he became his church’s clerk at age twelve and later taught school in Prince George County. Brown was among the last successful African American politicians in the nineteenth century, serving as the county’s commissioner of revenue from 1887 to 1895. He moved to Richmond the year after he left office, where he worked for the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a fraternal beneficiary organization. Eventually becoming editor of its weekly newspaper, the Reformer, Brown promoted the order’s various enterprises while condemning the new segregation laws. The organization’s finances collapsed in 1910, causing the removal of its officers. Brown became a Baptist preacher, but left the ministry in the mid-1920s to join his son’s real estate and insurance agency in Norfolk. He died in 1929.


Robert Peel Brooks (1853–1882)

Robert Peel Brooks was one of Richmond’s first African American lawyers and a Republican Party leader. Born into slavery, he was manumitted in 1862 and graduated from Howard University’s law school in 1875. While practicing law in Richmond he also edited the Richmond Virginia Star. Brooks became involved in politics and was elected secretary of the Republican State Central Committee in 1880. Initially siding with the Funders, who advocated full payment of the state’s prewar debt, he came to support the Readjusters, who sought adjustment of the debt, because they promoted black political participation. He contracted typhoid fever in 1882 and died not long before his twenty-ninth birthday.


Lucy Goode Brooks (1818–1900)

Lucy Goode Brooks played the primary role in establishing the Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans, an orphanage for African American children in Richmond, after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born into slavery, she married Albert Royal Brooks, whose master allowed him to operate a livery stable and eating house. Although he eventually purchased his freedom and that of Lucy Brooks and several of their children, one daughter was sold by her owner to bondage in Tennessee. After Emancipation former slaves flocked to Richmond to look for missing family members. Having lost one of her own children to the slave trade, Lucy Brooks had a special concern for the plight of parentless children. She worked with the Ladies Sewing Circle for Charitable Work, a local Society of Friends meeting, and several black churches to create an orphanage. In March 1872 the General Assembly incorporated the Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans, which remained in operation for almost sixty years. Brooks died in Richmond in 1900.


William H. Brisby (1836–1916)

William H. Brisby served one term in the House of Delegates (1869–1871), representing New Kent County. Brisby, who had an African American and Pamunkey Indian background, was born free and acquired enough money to establish his own blacksmith shop in 1860. He served as a blacksmith for a Confederate cavalry company to avoid impressment during the American Civil War (1861–1865), but also helped enslaved people and Union prisoners escape. The suspicion of the latter led to two imprisonments. By 1867 Brisby had entered politics as a Republican and he won a seat in the General Assembly two years later by just nineteen votes. He spent ten years on the New Kent County’s board of supervisors and was a longtime justice of the peace. Brisby was strict and sometimes violent with his family, driving his sons out of the house. Late in life he began to suffer from dementia and died in 1916 at the Central State Hospital near Petersburg of kidney failure.


William Breedlove (ca. 1820–1871)

William Breedlove served as a delegate to the Convention of 1867–1868. The free-born Breedlove owned real estate and worked as a blacksmith before the American Civil War (1861–1865). He also operated a ferry across the Rappahannock River on which he transported an escaped slave in 1863. The Essex County court convicted him for the action, but local dignitaries successfully lobbied Governor John Letcher for Breedlove’s clemency. After the war he won election to a convention called to rewrite the state’s constitution. Representing the district of Essex and Middlesex counties, he served inconspicuously and voted consistently with the Radical Republican majority. Breedlove later served as an Essex County justice of the peace, sat on the Tappahannock town council, and was the town’s postmaster until shortly before his death in 1871.


“Suffragists Determined” (November 13, 1909)

This article, published November 13, 1909, by the News Leader, describes what would be the founding meeting of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in Richmond. The article dramatically generalizes the social opposition and chaos resulting from the intention to establish this organization, which was formalizing the movement for women’s suffrage.