African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902)


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).

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 former slaves 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 whole 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 radical 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.


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.

  • 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.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902). (2020, December 14). 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, (14 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 Nov. 2022
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.