ENTRY

African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902)

SUMMARY

African Americans were deeply involved in Virginia politics from the American Civil War (1861–1865) until the first years of the twentieth century. Prior to 1865, Virginia law had restricted the vote to adult white men. With the abolition of slavery, African American men began to lobby for their full rights as citizens. In Norfolk, in May 1865, they even cast votes for the first time, although local electoral boards refused to count them. The first election in which Black men voted and those votes were counted was for delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868, to which they elected two dozen of their own. Beginning in 1869, African Americans began to be elected to the General Assembly, mostly as Republicans and later as members of the biracial Readjuster Party. Some Black politicians were more radical than others, but they generally advocated Black civil rights, access to free public schools, and a refinancing of the state’s large antebellum debt. Although records are scarce to document the fact, African American women were probably active behind the scenes, particularly in campaigns supporting public schools. Formal Black participation in Virginia politics after the Civil War may have peaked in 1881, when the Readjusters swept statewide offices and took control of both houses of the assembly. In 1888, John Mercer Langston even won a contested election for House of Representatives, becoming the first African American from Virginia to serve in Congress and the only one prior to 1993. In the years that followed, however, white supremacist Democrats asserted control again, passing various laws to reduce Black suffrage, which culminated in the Constitution of 1902 and a 50 percent reduction in the state’s voters. African Americans largely did not participate again in formal state politics until after World War II (1939–1945).

READING LEVEL
Grade 4

Summary

African Americans were deeply involved in Virginia politics after the Civil War. Before that, only adult white men were allowed to vote in Virginia. After slavery was abolished, Black men began to fight for their full rights as citizens. In Norfolk, they cast votes for the first time. However, local officials refused to count them. The first election when Black votes were counted was in 1867. They elected 24 Black representatives. In 1869, African Americans began to be elected to the General Assembly[/future. Most ran as Republicans and later as members of the Readjuster Party. Some Black politicians were more radical than others. But they mostly fought for Black civil rights and free public schools. In 1888, John Mercer Langston became the first Black Virginian to serve in Congress. In the years that followed, however, Democrats fought for control again. They passed many laws to reduce Black suffrage. African Americans did not participate again in formal state politics until after World War II (1939–1945).

In This Entry

Contributor: Brent Tarter

Attempted Black Suffrage in Norfolk

After the Civil War, many Confederate states were run by the U.S. military. Before the Civil War was over, African Americans in Norfolk began discussing what the effects of the abolition of slavery might be. The right to vote was on their minds. African Americans wrote to the president to suggest that they be allowed to form a new government.

In 1865, Black men in Norfolk came together to create an organization. They called it the Colored Monitor Union Club. They believed that suffrage, or the right to vote, should be given to all men. African Americans gathered similar groups in Hampton, [future url="Williamsburg"]Williamsburg, and Richmond, Virginia. The Club organized its first vote.

More than 500 Black men gathered in the Bute Street Methodist church. By the end of the day, more than 1,000 Black men had come to vote. They sent small groups to other parts of the city. They needed to find out if officials would count their votes. Only one section of the city agreed to count Black votes. The other three sections of Norfolk refused to count the Black votes. Many of the candidates who supported their causes lost. If Black votes had been counted, the candidates would have easily won.

Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868

Some white Virginians wanted Black men to be able to vote. They joined with Black Virginians to fight for voting rights. No member of the General Assembly agreed to grant voting rights to African Americans. However, during Reconstruction, Congress ruled that all Confederate states must create a new constitution. Virginia would do this in a special event called a Constitutional Convention. Virginia had to create a new constitution. It also had to allow Black men to vote for convention members.

Many Black men registered to vote. Some white men chose not to register because they did not agree with the proposed changes. Of the registered white voters, a large number refused to vote. As a result, Black voters were able to make their voices heard. They voted for candidates who wanted to make big changes to the constitution. 24 Black men were elected to the convention. The convention voted to add Black suffrage to the new constitution.

First African Americans in State Government

Some of the ideas for the new constitution were considered too different. Because of that, candidates with ideas that more people agreed with won their elections. Even still, 30 Black men won their elections to the General Assembly. And many Black men continued to win their elections between 1871 and 1875. Most of those Black men were part of the Republican political party. From 1867-1895, almost 100 Black Virginians were elected to the General Assembly or the Constitutional Convention.

Notable Black Virginians in Politics:

White Backlash and Coalition Building

Many white Virginians did not agree with African Americans having the right to vote. Some members of the General Assembly wrote two amendments to the constitution. These changes were meant to reduce the number of Black voters. One of the amendments included a poll tax, money that had to be paid to vote. The amendments worked. The number of voters decreased by 10% after the amendments were passed.

Even though there were new barriers, Black Virginians continued to vote and run for office. Among many things, they fought to give more money to public schools. With the support of Black voters, many Republican candidates won their elections. One major win was getting more funding for public schools. They also chose a new leader of public schools in Virginia. The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute was created as well. This would later become Virginia State University, the first college for African Americans.

Many white men supported these changes, too. This caused them to change some of their racist ideas about Black people. This worried the Democratic party, who did not agree with these changes. Before the elections in 1883, there was a street fight in Danville between white and Black men. Democrats called this a “race riot.” They also suggested that this violence was the natural effect of increased Black influence in politics. Two years later, many Republican candidates were defeated. This ended the most active period of political change in 19th century Virginia.

Disfranchisement

Virginia began passing new laws to reduce Black voting. One law allowed the General Assembly to replace the election officials. The new officials often looked the other way when illegal things were done to affect the vote. Voters, especially Republicans or Black voters, were intimidated or made to wait in long lines. These long lines meant that many voters could not cast their vote before the polls closed. The backlash to Black voting rights was fierce.

The number of African Americans who voted and who won elections began to decrease. They were the last Black lawmakers in Virginia until 1968. By the end of the century very few African Americans still held local offices anywhere in the state. The Fifteenth Amendment was supposed to guarantee voting rights to Black men nationwide. But Congress had given up trying to force southern states to follow the law. White men in Virginia continued to exclude African Americans from politics.

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

No African Americans were part of the Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902. Many of the changes from the years before were undone. The convention brought back the poll tax as a requirement for voting. The changes took voting rights away from about 90% Black voters in Virginia and about 50% of the white voters.

The Democratic Party kept control of the General Assembly, as well as many state and local offices. For almost 50 years, very few Black Virginians ran for public office and only a very small number held minor local offices.

Grade 8

Summary

African Americans were deeply involved in Virginia politics from the Civil War until the first years of the twentieth century. Prior to 1865, only adult white men were legally able to vote in Virginia. With the abolition of slavery, African American men began to fight for their full rights as citizens. In Norfolk, in May 1865, they cast votes for the first time. Though, local electoral boards refused to count them. The first election in which Black men voted and those votes were counted was for delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. They elected 24 Black representatives. Beginning in 1869, African Americans began to be elected to the General Assembly. Most ran as Republicans and later as members of the biracial Readjuster Party. Some black politicians were more radical than others, but they generally advocated for Black civil rights, free public schools, and a refinancing of the state’s large antebellum debt. African American women were probably active behind the scenes, especially in campaigns supporting public schools. Formal black participation in Virginia politics after the Civil War peaked in 1881. The Readjusters swept statewide offices and took control of both houses of the assembly. In 1888, John Mercer Langston won a contested election for House of Representatives. He became the first African American from Virginia to serve in Congress and the only one prior to 1993. In the years that followed, however, white supremacist Democrats fought for control again. They passed various laws to reduce Black suffrage, which culminated in the Constitution of 1902 and a 50% decrease in the state’s voters. African Americans largely did not participate again in formal state politics until after World War II (1939–1945).

In This Entry

Contributor: Brent Tarter

Attempted Black Suffrage in Norfolk

Before the Civil War was over, African Americans in Norfolk began discussing the legal and political effects of the abolition of slavery. The right to vote almost certainly was on their agenda. In February white residents of Norfolk who had remained loyal to the Union proposed to restore civilian city government. African Americans petitioned the president and the commanding officer of the U.S. Army to request that civilian government replace military government only on a “loyal and equal basis.”

On April 4, 1865, the men in Norfolk founded the Colored Monitor Union Club. They demanded “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color, and to memorialize the Congress of the United States to allow the colored citizens the equal right of franchise with other citizens.” At the same time, African Americans were organizing in Hampton, Williamsburg, and Richmond, Virginia.

The Black men of Norfolk went even further. City residents called for an election of one state senator and two members of the House of Delegates to represent the city. Norfolk’s Black residents decided to vote in that election. More than 500 of them assembled in the Bute Street Methodist Church. Their number doubled before the end of the day. They sent small groups to polling places in the city to find out whether election officers would receive their votes.

Officials in three of the wards refused. But in the city’s Second Ward, they agreed to record the votes of Black Norfolk men on separate sheets. In small groups, 354 men went to the Second Ward throughout the day and voted for white candidates who pledged to support African American suffrage. The 712 residents of the other three wards remained at the church and unanimously recorded their votes for the same candidates.

Without counting the votes of the Black men, the candidates for whom they voted finished a second in the three-way races for each of the seats in the assembly. Had the African American votes from the Second Ward been counted, those candidates would have won the election easily. Had all of the 1,066 votes from Black men been counted, the candidates who pledged to support Black suffrage would have won by almost 900 votes.

On June 5, members of the Norfolk organization and other local Black citizens met at the Catharine Street Baptist Church. They created an “Address From the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States.” It was printed that autumn with a record of the creation of the union and the attempt of the men to vote in May.

The long address to their “Fellow Citizens” began,

We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship…which must be the desire of every patriot.

The authors explained the many ways in which freedpeople were denied participation in the legal system. They explained that they weren’t asking for “expensive aid from military forces,” or “overbearing State action;” They declared, “…give us the suffrage, and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves, and all Union men, and to keep the State forever in the Union.”

Colored State Convention in Alexandria

Some white Virginians promoted suffrage for African Americans. They realized that the only chance that they had to remain politically competitive was to give Black men the vote. In Alexandria, they formed the Virginia Union Association. Its aim was to generate political support for changes in Virginia’s political culture. The association agreed to “secure the elective franchise to our colored population, as soon as it can be safely done.”

More than sixty African Americans met in a Colored State Convention in Alexandria. Several of the leaders of the Norfolk and Richmond organizations attended the state convention. It adopted several resolutions and public statements. These declarations insisted on full citizenship and voting rights.

African American Suffrage and a New Constitution

No member of the General Assembly agreed to grant the vote to African Americans. Governor Pierpont was opposed to allowing African Americans to vote because many former slaves were not literate. In 1867, Congress, through the Reconstruction Acts, enforced military rule on Virginia and the other former Confederate states. Congress required that each state adopt a new state constitution. It also required that when the army conducted elections for members of the conventions, it permit African American men to vote and to run for seats in the convention.

Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868

Before the election in Virginia, 105,832 African American men registered. In fact, many white men who opposed Congressional Reconstruction decided not to register. Others were still legally unable to register and vote because of their Confederate pasts.

On election day, October 22, 1867, a significant number of registered white voters refused to take part. African Americans cast more votes than white men by a large margin. In most cities and counties white men voted against holding the convention at all. Black men voted overwhelmingly in favor. Almost all Black men voted for candidates who favored making significant reforms to the old state constitution. Most white voters opposed those candidates. As a result, men who supported radical reform won a majority of seats in the convention. Among them were 24 African Americans, many of whom had lived in slavery until the spring of 1865.

The convention voted to include a new section in the constitution that granted the vote to adult African American men. Delegate Thomas Bayne, of Norfolk, made a notable speech in favor of the section. He had escaped from slavery in Virginia before the Civil War and become a doctor in New England. Bayne returned to Norfolk and in May 1865 presided over the conference that decided that Black men would vote. His 1868 speech in favor of granting all men the right to vote reflected the beliefs held by most African American men at that time about their new place in the American nation. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson and citing the Declaration of Independence, Bayne stated that all men were created equal in the eyes of God, and that no men had the right to deprive any other men of God-given rights.

“Has a man the right to live?” Bayne asked the other delegates. “Was he born a freeman? Did God make man a slave? I say, no. If God never made man a slave, man was born free, and had a right to liberty. That is the principle of the Declaration of Independence … I rejoice to-day that it is my privilege to stand on this floor and say that we are now beginning to live where we can recognize God as the great giver of all good gifts, and among them, the right of suffrage.”

First African Americans in State Government

African Americans were unsure about whether to allow former Confederates back into politics soon or at all. White Republicans were divided on the same question, with some favoring the move as a way of making peace. In October 1869, Virginia held its first election held since the ratification of the new constitution. Radical reformers suffered a serious defeat. White members of the Conservative Party supported a moderate Republican ticket for the statewide offices. This helped to defeat a radical Republican ticket that included an African American candidate, Joseph D. Harris, for lieutenant governor. Conservatives also won large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Nevertheless, thirty Black men won election to the assembly. 18- 20 Black men won in each of the legislative elections in 1871, 1873, and 1875.

During those years, almost all of the African American men active in Virginia politics were part of the Republican Party. Some of them supported more radical proposals than others. Between 1867 and 1895, nearly 100 Black Virginians served in the two houses of the General Assembly or in the Constitutional Convention. Many of them had grown up in slavery. But some had been free before the Civil War, and others came of age afterward. Some of the members of the convention had little or no education. But by the 1880s most of the legislators were educated and well qualified. A few had very successful political careers. They served their localities in the assembly for several terms and became influential leaders in the Republican Party.

For instance, Peter Jacob Carter, an army veteran from Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, served four terms in the House of Delegates. He campaigned for Republican candidates throughout eastern Virginia. He was a prominent delegate to the party’s state conventions. Other men with long and successful careers included Ross Hamilton, who served in the assembly for twenty years (see also the three Norton brothers of Williamsburg and York County—F. S. NortonDaniel M. Norton, and Robert Norton). Other African Americans had briefer and less notable political careers. Some fell victim to increasing racial prejudice and political difficulties.

White Backlash and Coalition Building

Many white Virginians remained opposed to African American suffrage. In 1876 the Conservative majority in the General Assembly submitted two constitutional amendments. These amendments were designed to reduce the number of African American voters. One made payment of a poll tax a requirement for voting. The other disfranchised men convicted of small offences such as stealing chickens. The amendments were based on a realistic understanding that many poor Black men could not afford to pay the tax. They also were based on a racist belief that Black men were naturally less honest than white men.

The amendments functioned as intended. The number of voters in the state declined by almost 10% immediately after ratification of the amendments. The amendments contributed significantly to the reduction in the number of African Americans who won election to the General Assembly.

Despite the new barriers, Black Virginians voted and successfully ran for public office in increasing numbers during the second half of the 1870s and 1880s. The Readjuster movement provided the motivation for Black political action. Readjusters proposed solutions to the debt that Virginia had created before the Civil War. They also proposed to redirect money to the public schools that had been used to pay down the debt. African American and many poor white Virginians supported the Readjuster proposals to preserve the public school system.

In 1879, Readjusters won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. But a Conservative governor vetoed their debt-reduction bill. Before the general election of 1881, about 300 African American Republicans convened in Petersburg. They discussed whether to make a formal alliance with the Readjusters. It was an unruly meeting. Personal conflicts among the leaders and differing political priorities led to clashes in the beginning. Many men did not want to lose their political identity as Republicans.

With strong support from African American voters, the Readjusters won all the statewide offices in 1881 as well as larger majorities in the assembly. Early in 1882 the General Assembly passed a bill that significantly reduced the cost of paying the public debt. The assembly also passed many reform measures. It restored funding for the public schools and appointed a new state superintendent of public instruction. The new state leader replaced most of the county and city school superintendents with men who were more sympathetic to the education of African Americans. The assembly abolished the whipping post as a punishment for African Americans. It also established Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the state’s first public college for African Americans. It created the first mental hospital for Black Virginians. Those achievements would not have been possible without the support of African American voters and their political leadership.

African Americans contributed greatly to the success of the Readjusters and to Republican presidential candidates throughout the decade. The Readjusters were never a Black-majority party. Many white men eagerly supported the Readjusters, too. As a result, some of them adopted a more egalitarian attitude than most white Virginians ever had. Such attitudes posed a threat to white supremacy, as did the coalition’s political power. This motivated the Democratic Party to respond.

Shortly before the 1883 legislative elections, a street fight in Danville between white and Black men helped tip the election against the Readjusters and Republicans. Democrats labeled this a “race riot.” Democrats also suggested that such violence was the logical consequence of increased Black influence in politics. Two years later, the statewide ticket of Readjusters and Republicans were defeated. This ended the most active period of political reform in nineteenth-century Virginia.

Disfranchisement

Nearly all of the African American Readjusters continued to participate in the Republican Party while the Readjuster Party existed. Many of them remained active afterward. Some white Readjusters joined the Republican Party, too. Mahone, a former Confederate and leader in the Readjuster Party, found support amongst many Black voters. But his leadership style caused division at times. In 1888, for instance, when John Mercer Langston ran for the House of Representatives as a Republican, Mahone refused to support him. He arranged for a white Republican to run in the same district. As a result, a Democratic candidate won the election. Nevertheless, Langston successfully challenged the outcome and briefly served in Congress. He was the first African American from Virginia to do so and the only one prior to 1993.

In 1884, the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly passed the Anderson-McCormick Act. It replaced all officers of election in the state and authorized the assembly to appoint a three-member electoral board for each city and county. That guaranteed that white Democrats would be in charge of all elections in the state. They often looked the other way when election tampering occurred. Sometimes they actively conspired with party officials. These officials stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated voters, or made African Americans or known Republicans stand in long lines that prevented some of them from voting before the polls closed.

Ten years later Democrats passed the Walton Act, which introduced the “Australian ballot” to Virginia. The state printed the names of all candidates on a ballot and required voters to mark a line through at least three-quarters of the name of each candidate they wished to vote against. That allowed vote counters to disallow ballots cast for Republicans or African Americans and to count votes for Democrats even if not marked as clearly. It discriminated against African Americans, who were more likely than white men to be unable to read or write.

The number of African Americans who voted and who won elections began to decline. They were the last Black legislators in Virginia until 1968. In Richmond, white political leaders redrew the city’s electoral district boundaries in the 1890s to create white majority districts. That made it impossible for African Americans to win municipal government elections. By the end of the century very few African Americans still held local offices anywhere in the state. Republicans in Congress had by then largely given up trying to force southern states to abide by either the letter or the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment. White men in Virginia and in most other states continued to exclude African Americans from politics.

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

The all-white Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 completed the almost total destruction of African American political activity in Virginia. It turned back nearly all of the democratic reforms in the state constitutions of 1851, 1864, and 1869. The convention reintroduced the poll tax as a requirement for voting. This created new forms of political corruption and also significantly reduced the number of adult, male Virginians who could vote. The constitutional changes disfranchised about 90 percent of the few African Americans who still voted in Virginia and about 50 percent of the white voters.

The white-supremacist Democratic Party retained control of both houses of the General Assembly, as well as many state and local offices. From then until after World War II, very few Black Virginians ran for public office and only a very small number held minor local offices.

Grades 11+

Attempted Black Suffrage in Norfolk

Early in 1865, even before the Civil War was over, African Americans in Norfolk began discussing the legal and political implications of the abolition of slavery and the end of military protection. The right to vote almost certainly was on their agenda. In February when white residents of Norfolk who had remained loyal to the Union proposed to restore civilian municipal government, African Americans petitioned the president and the commanding officer of the U.S. Army in the district to request that civilian government replace military government only on a “loyal and equal basis.”

Grand Barbecue of the Walker Colored Voters!! of Richmond and Henrico.

On April 4, 1865, the men in Norfolk founded the Colored Monitor Union Club to obtain all the rights of citizenship, including “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color, and to memorialize the Congress of the United States to allow the colored citizens the equal right of franchise with other citizens.” The men met again later in April and several times in May. At the same time, African Americans were organizing in other communities. Hampton residents founded a Union League in March, and Williamsburg residents founded a Colored Union League in May. In Richmond on May 9, 1865, community leaders created the Colored Men’s Equal Rights League of Richmond, an affiliate of the National Equal Rights League that had been founded in 1864. “The objects of this League,” the organizers of the Richmond chapter proclaimed, “are to encourage sound morality, education, temperance, frugality, industry, and promote everything that pertains to a well-ordered and dignified life, and to obtain by appeals to the minds and consciences of the American people, or by legal process when possible, a recognition of the rights of the colored people of the Nation as American citizens.”

The Black men of Norfolk went even further after city residents called an election—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Confederate government—of one state senator and two members of the House of Delegates to represent the city. At a meeting of the Colored Monitor Union, Norfolk’s Black residents decided to vote in that election. On the morning of May 25, 1865, more than 500 of them assembled in the Bute Street Methodist Church; their number doubled before the end of the day. From there they sent small delegations to polling places in the city’s four wards to ascertain whether election officers would receive their votes.

Officials in three of the wards refused, but in the city’s Second Ward, they agreed to record the votes of Black Norfolk men on separate sheets designated as votes of men whose qualifications were in doubt. In small groups, 354 men went to the Second Ward throughout the day and voted for white candidates who pledged to support African American suffrage. The 712 residents of the other three wards remained at the church and unanimously recorded their votes for the same candidates.

Without counting the votes of the Black men, the candidates for whom they voted finished a somewhat distant second in the three-way races for each of the seats in the assembly. Had the African American votes from the Second Ward alone been counted, those candidates would have won the election easily. Had all of the 1,066 votes from Black men been counted, the candidates pledged to support Black suffrage would have won by almost 900 votes.

It didn’t matter. None of the men elected to the General Assembly that day appeared at the Capitol to claim a seat when the assembly met in June. And the men for whom the Black delegates either voted or tried to vote declined to challenge the outcome. For that reason the assembly had no occasion to decide whether the exclusion of African Americans from three of the four wards or the refusal to report their votes in the Second Ward was proper. The votes did not count.

Equal Suffrage.

On June 5, members of the Colored Monitor Union of Norfolk and other local African Americans met at the Catharine Street Baptist Church and adopted an “Address From the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States,” which was printed that autumn with an account of the formation of the union and the attempt of the men to vote in May.

The long address to their “Fellow Citizens” began, “We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.”

The authors laid out the many legal disabilities under which freedpeople continued to labor. They explained that they desired “no expensive aid from military forces, stationed throughout the South, overbearing State action, and rendering our government republican only in name; give us the suffrage, and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves, and all Union men, and to keep the State forever in the Union.”

Colored State Convention in Alexandria

Francis Harrison Pierpont

Some white Virginia Unionists endorsed suffrage for African Americans in the summer of 1865. Alarmed at the ease with which former Confederates won endorsements from Governor Francis H. Pierpont and pardons from President Andrew Johnson, they recognized that the only chance that they and other white Republicans had to remain politically competitive was to give Black men the vote. Late in June in Alexandria, they formed the Virginia Union Association to generate political support for significant changes in Virginia’s political culture. The association declared that its members were resolved, among other things, to “secure the elective franchise to our colored population, as soon as it can be safely done,” in order to provide a government of Virginia by people who were and had been loyal to the United States.

More than sixty African Americans met in a Colored State Convention in Alexandria on August 2–5, 1865. Several of the principal local leaders of the Norfolk and Richmond organizations attended the state convention, which adopted several resolutions and public statements that all insisted on full citizenship and voting rights. “We claim, then, as citizens of this State,” one of their declarations insisted, that “the laws of the Commonwealth shall give to all men equal protection; that each and every man may appeal to the law for his equal rights without regard to the color of his skin; and we believe this can only be done by extending to us the elective franchise, which we believe to be our inalienable right as freemen, and which the Declaration of Independence guarantees to all free citizens of this Government and which is the privilege of the nation. We claim the right of suffrage.”

African American Suffrage and a New Constitution

No member of the General Assembly advocated amending the state Constitution to grant the vote to African Americans. Governor Pierpont, meanwhile, was opposed to allowing African Americans to vote because many formerly enslaved people were not literate and, he believed, therefore not competent to take part in politics. In the spring of 1867, though, Congress, through the Reconstruction Acts, imposed military rule on Virginia and the other states of the former Confederacy and required that each state adopt a new state constitution. Congress required that when the army conducted elections for members of the conventions, it permit African American men to vote and to run for seats in the convention.

Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868

Prior to the election in Virginia, 105,832 African American men registered, not far short of the 120,101 white men who registered, even though the percentage of white men in the overall population was larger than the proportions of registered voters indicated. In fact, many white men who opposed congressional reconstruction decided not to register, while others were still legally unable to register and vote because of their Confederate pasts.

On election day, October 22, 1867, a significant number of registered white voters refused to take part, and African Americans actually cast more votes than white men by a substantial margin. In most cities and counties white men voted overwhelmingly against holding the convention at all, and Black men voted overwhelmingly in favor. Moreover, almost all Black men voted for candidates who favored making significant reforms to the old state constitution, while most white voters opposed those candidates. As a result, men who supported radical reform won a majority of seats in the convention. Among them were two dozen African Americans, many of whom had lived in slavery until the spring of 1865.

The convention voted to include in the new constitution a section that granted the vote to adult African American men. Delegate Thomas Bayne, of Norfolk, made one of the most eloquent speeches in favor of the section. He had escaped from slavery in Virginia before the Civil War and become a doctor in New England. Bayne returned to Norfolk and in May 1865 presided over the conference that decided that Black men would vote. He was also the chair of the public meeting on June 5, 1865, that published the long address on Black suffrage. His speech on January 20, 1868, in favor of granting all men the right to vote reflected the beliefs held by most African American men at that time about their new place in the American nation. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson and specifically citing the Declaration of Independence, Bayne stated that all men were created equal in the eyes of God and that no men had the right to deprive any other men of God-given rights.

“Has a man the right to live?” Bayne asked the other delegates. “Was he born a freeman? Did God make man a slave? I say, no. If God never made man a slave, man was born free, and had a right to liberty. That is the principle of the Declaration of Independence … I rejoice to-day that it is my privilege to stand on this floor and say that we are now beginning to live where we can recognize God as the great giver of all good gifts, and among them, the right of suffrage.”

Major General John M. Schofield

The convention also included in the new constitution a section that disfranchised men who had supported the Confederacy. The commander of the First Military District, Major General John M. Schofield, opposed the disfranchisement of so many of the state’s white men and postponed the scheduled ratification referendum. Eventually, a group of experienced white Virginia political leaders negotiated a compromise with President Ulysses S. Grant and members of Congress to allow that section to be voted on separately, which allowed the voters to ratify the new constitution in the summer of 1869 with Black suffrage intact but without the clauses disfranchising white voters.

First African Americans in State Government

Republican Ticket (1869)

African Americans were unsure about whether to allow former Confederates back into politics soon or at all. White Republicans were divided on the same question, with some favoring the move as a measure of reconciliation. In October 1869, in the first state election held after ratification of the new constitution, radical reformers suffered a serious defeat. White members of the Conservative Party supported a moderate Republican ticket for the statewide offices, helping to defeat a radical Republican ticket that included an African American candidate, Joseph D. Harris, for lieutenant governor. Conservatives also won large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Nevertheless, thirty Black men won election to the assembly and eighteen to twenty won in each of the legislative elections in 1871, 1873, and 1875.

During those years, virtually all of the African American men active in Virginia politics were affiliated with the Republican Party, although some of them supported more radical proposals than others. Between 1867 and 1895, nearly 100 Black Virginians served in the two houses of the General Assembly or in the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. Many of them had grown up in slavery, but some had been free before the Civil War, and others came of age afterward. Some of the members of the convention had little or no education, but by the 1880s most of the legislators were educated and well qualified. A few had very successful political careers, served their localities in the assembly for several terms, and became influential leaders in the Republican Party.

Electioneering at the South.

Peter Jacob Carter, for instance, an army veteran from Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, served four terms in the House of Delegates, campaigned for Republican candidates throughout eastern Virginia, and was a prominent delegate to the party’s state conventions and once presided as the temporary chair. Other men with long and successful careers included Ross Hamilton, of Mecklenburg, who served in the assembly off and on for twenty years, and the three Norton brothers of Williamsburg and York County—F. S. Norton, Daniel M. Norton, and Robert Norton—who held both legislative and local offices. The latter two supported the Conservatives late in the 1860s but eventually became prominent state leaders in the Readjuster Party, while F. S. Norton began as a radical during Reconstruction but sympathized with the Democrats by the time of his death in the 1890s.

Other African Americans had briefer and less distinguished political careers or fell victim to the increasing racial prejudice and political difficulties that mounted during the century. Johnson Collins was one such man, who rose from slavery to serve one two-year term in the House of Delegates from Brunswick County, but then lost his small farm for nonpayment of taxes and had to move to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a watchman in a warehouse for two decades before his death.

Negro Office-Holders in Virginia 1865—1895

Thorough, systematic research has not been done to ascertain how many Black Virginians won election or appointment to local offices between 1867 and the end of the nineteenth century. In his pioneering 1945 study, Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895, Luther Porter Jackson included the names of some justices of the peace and other city and county officials whom he had identified during his research, but it is an admittedly incomplete list. Michael B. Chesson, in a detailed 1982 study of aldermen and city councilmen in late-nineteenth-century Richmond, compiled a full roster of men who held office as well as some biographical information about them, but that is the only detailed local study of its kind. It is not clear whether the patterns that Chesson identified in Richmond were typical of other Virginia cities and how or to what degree those patterns may have differed from Black office holding and participation in local politics in the state’s counties. It is likely, but not known for certain, that the ebbs and flows of African American voting and office holding at the local level followed the pattern of statewide and legislative elections.

White Backlash and Coalition Building

Southern Types—The Wolf and the Lamb in Politics.

Many white Virginians remained opposed to African American suffrage. In 1876 the Conservative Party majority in the General Assembly submitted to the voters two constitutional amendments designed to reduce the number of African American voters; both were ratified. One made payment of a poll tax a prerequisite for voting; the other disfranchised men convicted of petty offences such as stealing chickens. The two amendments were based on a realistic understanding that many poor Black men could not afford to pay the tax and in a racist belief that Black men were inherently less honest than white men.

The amendments functioned as intended. The number of voters in the state declined by almost 10 percent immediately after ratification of the amendments, from 236,989 in the presidential election of 1876 to 212,281 in the election of 1880. The amendments no doubt contributed significantly to the reduction in the number of African Americans who won election to the General Assembly, from the upper teens in the years before 1876 to eight in 1877. It is very probable that there was a corresponding reduction in the number of African Americans who won election to local offices at the same time.

In spite of the new barriers to their participation in politics, Black Virginians voted and successfully ran for public office in increasing numbers during the second half of the 1870s and 1880s. The Readjuster movement provided the motivation for the resurgence of Black political action. Readjusters proposed to refinance the public debt that Virginia had created before the Civil War by reducing the rate of interest and the amount of the principal to be paid and to restore to the public schools money that had been diverted to debt service. African Americans, as well as many poor white Virginia families, had eagerly seized the opportunity to send their children to the new public schools that the General Assembly established in 1870 and were opposed to the reductions in funding. Voters of both races supported the Readjuster proposals in order to preserve the public school system.

William Mahone

Early in 1879, the Readjusters’ state leader, the former Confederate general William Mahone, summoned a state convention that formally created the Readjuster Party. He invited all men, regardless of their race. By bringing African Americans into the Readjuster Party, Mahone, who had once been a conspicuous opponent of Reconstruction, took the lead in forming a biracial political party that appealed directly to the interests of voters regardless of race or prior partisan affiliations. Both white and African American delegates from more than sixty counties met in Richmond on February 25–26, 1879, to found the Readjuster Party. One of the African Americans, William T. Jefferson, of New Kent County, informed the convention that he and the other black delegates, most of whom were Republicans, were solidly for the Readjusters.

“As to the debt,” the Richmond Daily Whig reported him as saying, “we don’t want to pay a cent of it. We think we paid our share of it, if it ever was justly chargeable upon us, by long years of servitude. And then, as Virginia has been reconstructed in her territory and in her government, we think that her debt should be reconstructed too.”

In 1879, Readjusters won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, but a Conservative governor vetoed their debt-reduction bill. In preparation for the 1881 general election in which the voters would elect a new assembly and a new governor, about 300 African American Republicans convened in Petersburg on March 14 to decide whether to make a formal alliance with the Readjusters. It was a raucous meeting. Personal rivalries among the leaders and differing political priorities led to clashes in the beginning, and many men did not want to lose their political identity as Republicans, which they feared might happen if they voted to affiliate with the Readjusters.

The "Southern Brigadier" as the Balance of Power in a "Loyal" Senate

During the opening session of the convention, a man dramatically rushed into the convention hall with a telegram and announced that when Mahone first took his seat in the U.S. Senate that day, the new Readjuster senator voted with the Republicans to organize the Senate, placing an otherwise evenly divided Senate under Republican control. The delegates cheered the news, not only because it denied Democrats control of the Senate. It also meant that Mahone, by cooperating with the Republican senators and president, would be well-positioned to provide federal jobs to African Americans and other Republicans. They hoped he also would be able to build the state’s Republican Party into a formidable biracial organization.

With strong support from African American voters, the Readjusters won all the statewide offices in 1881 as well as larger majorities in the assembly. Early in 1882 the General Assembly passed a refinancing bill that significantly reduced the cost of paying the public debt, and the assembly also enacted a large number of reform measures, many of which directly benefited African Americans. It restored funding for the public schools and appointed a new state superintendent of public instruction, who replaced most of the county and city school superintendents in the state with men who were more sympathetic to the education of African Americans. The assembly abolished the whipping post as a punishment for African Americans. It also established Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the state’s first public college for African Americans, and it created the first mental hospital for Black Virginians. Those achievements would not have been possible without the support of African American voters and their political leadership.

Public Free Schools!

African American women probably followed political developments in the same way that white women in Virginia had for decades. Evidence of their participation in non-electoral politics is scarce, but the importance of the public schools to children of both races certainly engaged the attentions of African American women, some of whom were teachers and many of whom were mothers. The Readjuster Party appealed directly to them in hopes of stimulating those women to influence the men in their families who could vote. A prime example of that appeal is a broadside that was evidently printed and circulated during the election campaign in 1883. Entitled “Public Free Schools!,” it listed the numbers of “Free Colored Schools,” “Free Colored Scholars,” and “Free Colored Teachers” when the Funders were in control of the government in 1877 and 1879 and after the Readjusters took control in 1880 and 1882. The clever printer set the numbers in varying sizes of type to highlight the contrast between the Funders’ low support for public education and the increases that the Readjusters made. That the primary audience for the campaign handout was African American women is clear from the text immediately below the title: “Let every Mother read, and by the facts which these figures below establish, determine for herself who are the friends to the Children.”

African American voters contributed significantly to the success of the Readjusters and also to an increase in the number of votes for Republican presidential candidates during the remainder of the decade. The Readjusters were never a Black-majority party, as their opponents charged, or under the direction of their Black supporters or of Republicans. Many white men eagerly supported the Readjusters, too, and some of them as a consequence adopted a more egalitarian attitude than most white Virginians had ever entertained. Such attitudes posed a threat to white supremacy, as did the coalition’s political power. This, in turn, motivated the Democratic Party to respond.

Danville Times

Shortly before the 1883 legislative elections, a street fight in Danville between white and Black men helped tip the election against the Readjusters and Republicans because of the Democrats’ adroit labeling of the event as a race riot. Democrats also suggested that such violence was the logical consequence of Black domination, the ambition, they claimed, of the Readjusters and Republicans. Two years later, the statewide ticket of Readjusters and Republicans also went down to defeat, ending the most active period of political reform in nineteenth-century Virginia.

Disfranchisement

John Mercer Langston

Nearly all of the African American Readjusters continued to participate in the Republican Party during the brief time when the Readjuster Party existed, and many of them remained active afterward. Mahone and some white Readjusters joined the Republican Party, too. Although it appears that most African Americans were firm supporters of Mahone throughout his political career and voted for him when he ran for governor as a Republican in 1889, his overbearing leadership style frustrated ambitious and independent men. In 1888, for instance, when John Mercer Langston, the former superintendent of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, ran for the House of Representatives as a Republican, Mahone refused to support him and arranged for a white Republican to run in the same district. As a result, a Democratic candidate won the election. Nevertheless, Langston successfully challenged the outcome and briefly served in Congress, becoming the first African American from Virginia to do so and the only one prior to 1993.

In 1884, the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly passed the Anderson-McCormick Act that replaced all officers of election in the state and authorized the assembly to appoint a three-member electoral board for each city and county. That guaranteed that white Democrats would be in charge of all elections in the state and they often looked the other way when election tampering occurred. Sometimes they even actively connived with party officials who stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated voters, or made African Americans or known Republicans stand in long lines that prevented some of them from voting before the polls closed.

Ten years later Democrats passed the Walton Act, which introduced the so-called Australian ballot to Virginia. The state printed the names of all candidates on a ballot and required voters to mark a line through at least three-quarters of the name of each candidate they wished to vote against. That allowed vote counters wide leeway to disallow ballots cast for Republicans or African Americans and to count votes for Democrats even if not marked as clearly. It no doubt discriminated against African Americans, who were proportionally more likely than white men to be unable to read or write.

The number of African Americans who voted began to decline, and the number who won election to the General Assembly fell from eight in 1884 to six in 1885, rose to seven in 1887, and fell back to four in 1889. They were the last Black legislators in Virginia until 1968. In Richmond, white political leaders redrew the city’s electoral district boundaries in the 1890s to create white majority districts that made it impossible for African Americans to win municipal government elections. By the end of the century very few African Americans still held local offices anywhere in the state. Republicans in Congress had by then largely given up trying to force southern states to abide by either the letter or the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment, allowing white men in Virginia and in most other states to exclude African Americans from politics.

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

The all-white Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 completed the almost total destruction of African American political activity in Virginia. It turned back nearly all of the democratic reforms embodied in the state constitutions of 1851, 1864, and 1869, excepting only the creation of the public school system and the popular election of local and statewide officials. The convention reintroduced the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting, which created new forms of political corruption and also significantly reduced the number of adult, male Virginians who could vote. The constitutional provisions and enabling acts that the assembly passed disfranchised about 90 percent of the few African Americans who still voted in Virginia at the beginning of the twentieth century and about 50 percent of the white voters. In fact, in terms of strict numbers, more white men than Black men lost the ability to vote. The number of voters in the state fell about 50 percent, and Republican voters fell from almost 44 percent of the whole in 1900 to about 35 percent in 1904.

The white-supremacist Democratic Party thereafter retained control of both houses of the General Assembly, the statewide offices, most of the state’s congressional seats, its two senate seats, and local offices in most parts of the state until the final decades of the twentieth century. From then until after World War II—except in 1921 when eight African Americans ran for statewide office and polled poorly after the state Republican Party convention refused to seat Black Republican delegates—very few Black Virginians ran for public office and only a very small number held minor local offices.

FURTHER READING
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Richmond’s Black Councilmen, 1871–1896,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  • Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro. “From the Ashes of the Old Dominion: Accommodation, Immediacy, and Progressive Pragmatism in John Mercer Langston’s Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 117, no. 3 (2009): 214–249.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Lowe, Richard G. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991.
  • Moore, James Tice. “Black Militancy in Readjuster Virginia, 1879–1883.” Journal of Southern History 41, no. 2 (May 1975): 167–186.
  • Morton, Richard Lee. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1865–1902. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1919; reprinted 1973, 1980.
  • Taylor, Alrutheus Ambush. The Negro in Reconstruction Virginia. Washington, D.C.: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1926.
  • Wynes, Charles. Race Relations in Virginia, 1870–1902. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1961.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/african-americans-and-politics-in-virginia-1865-1902.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 21
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