John Brown (ca. 1830–after 1900)


John Brown represented Southampton County at the Convention of 1867–1868, called to rewrite Virginia’s constitution. Brown was born enslaved, and before Emancipation his wife and children were sold and taken to Mississippi. How and why he entered politics after the American Civil War (1861–1865) is unknown, but he inspired a remarkable voter turnout during elections for the convention. White moderates who had been Whigs before the war sought African American support for the convention balloting. In an astonishing display of group cohesion, almost 98 percent of registered black men appeared at the polls on October 22, 1867. Brown received all 1,242 black voters to defeat his two white opponents. The turnout and support for Brown was a remarkable event in the county where Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 took place. Brown’s political career did not continue after the convention. He likely never learned to read or write and died sometime between 1900 and 1910.

Brown was born into slavery sometime around January 1830 in Southampton County. The names of his parents are not known. His owner, Robert Ridley, was a large-scale planter who sat in the Convention of 1850–1851. Ridley died in 1852, and, possibly as a result of that event, Brown’s wife, two daughters, and perhaps a brother were later sold and taken to Mississippi. He maintained sporadic contact with them until the Civil War.

Brown resided on Ridley family land until at least 1870. About 1861 he remarried, to a woman named Chloe with whom he had six children, including three sons and two daughters. In April 1867 Brown dictated a letter that the local agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau wrote for him and addressed to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to his daughters from his first marriage. Evidently it did not reach them.

The State Convention At Richmond

Although modern scholarship has largely discredited the old stereotype of illiterate former slaves elevated to high public office during Reconstruction, Brown showed by his example that some blacks did overcome all the handicaps of enslavement to gain postwar political prominence and that ambitious Virginia freedpeoplebriefly enjoyed enlarged opportunities. Brown won his convention seat at a remarkable moment in Virginia’s political history. During the summer of 1867 newly energized freedmen sought to break free from the subservient position to which they had long been assigned. Armed for the first time with the ballot, blacks dared to assert themselves in ways that would have been unthinkable at any time in the past.

Brown and other politically active blacks in Southampton spurned an alliance with moderate white former Whigs who hoped to win black votes. They boldly took matters into their own hands. In an astonishing display of group cohesion and discipline, almost 98 percent of registered black men appeared at the polls on October 22, 1867. All 1,242 black voters and a lone white supported Brown, who easily defeated two white candidates. Nothing since Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 so shocked the local gentry. Available evidence does not indicate how Brown emerged as the spokesman for Southampton’s freedpeople, but in the short time after Emancipation he must have exhibited impressive leadership abilities to command a unanimous following.

Major General John M. Schofield

Brown was appointed to the Committee on the Judiciary, excepting County and Corporation Courts. He did not assume a conspicuous role at the convention. In assessing the delegates John McAllister Schofield, the army general then in control of Virginia, dismissed Brown as a man with “no force of character.” Brown regularly voted with the Radicals to reform and democratize the state constitution and protect the rights of freedpeople. Unfortunately for him and his fellow Radicals, their startling 1867 victory galvanized opposition. Both in Southampton County and statewide, former Whigs and Democrats mobilized to counter the black political initiative by building similar political unity among whites. The resulting Conservative Party gained control of the state in 1869. Voters approved the new constitution but struck out a clause that disqualified prominent former Confederates from office.

The 1870, 1880, and 1900 census takers listed Brown as unable to read or write. Described as a carpenter who owned no land in 1870, he paid taxes on one horse and several other animals. In 1880 and 1900 Brown was identified as a farmer. He may have been related to a Brown family of African Americans from New Bern, North Carolina, some of whom moved to Norfolk after the Civil War and became active in the Republican Party. Brown died on an unknown date after the census enumeration of his district on June 19, 1900. Neither he nor his wife was listed in the 1910 census.

January 1830
John Brown is born into slavery in Southampton County.
Robert Ridley, of Southampton County, dies, and possibly as a result, the wife, two daughters, and perhaps a brother of Ridley's slave John Brown are sold and taken to Mississippi.
ca. 1861
John Brown, whose first wife was sold and taken to Mississippi, marries a woman named Chloe with whom he fathers six children.
April 1867
John Brown, of Southampton County, dictates a letter that the local agent of the Freedmen's Bureau writes for him and addresses to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to his daughters from his first marriage. Evidently it does not reach them.
October 22, 1867
John Brown, of Southampton County, is elected a delegate to the constitutional convention in Richmond. All 1,242 black voters and a lone white support him and he easily defeats two white candidates.
December 3, 1867—April 17, 1868
John Brown, a representative from Southampton County to the constitutional convention, serves on the Committee on the Judiciary.
After June 19, 1900
John Brown dies on an unknown date. Neither he nor his wife are listed in the 1910 census.
  • Crofts, Daniel W. Old Southampton: Politics and Society in a Virginia County, 1834–1863. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
  • Crofts, Daniel W. “Brown, John.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 305–306. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Lowe, Richard G. “Virginia’s Reconstruction Convention: General Schofield Rates the Delegates.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80, no. 3 (July 1972): 341–360.
APA Citation:
Crofts, Daniel & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Brown (ca. 1830–after 1900). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brown-john-ca-1830-after-1900.
MLA Citation:
Crofts, Daniel, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Brown (ca. 1830–after 1900)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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