George William Cole (d. after June 10, 1880)


George W. Cole represented Essex County in the House of Delegates (1879–1880). Cole was born, most likely free, in Athens, Georgia. He enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) in 1872, and by 1879 he lived in Essex County. He received the local Republican Party‘s nomination for the House that same year. The Republicans took advantage of a major split in the Conservative Party and captured the seat. In the House of Delegates for one term, Cole was part of a coalition between the Republicans and the Readjuster wing of the Conservatives. He voted to elect the Readjuster chief William Mahone to the U.S. Senate and for the so-called Riddleberger Bill, which later became the basis of the Readjusters’ successful restructuring of the state debt. Nothing is known about Cole’s life or death after his term ended, though he might have lived in Washington, D.C.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

George William Cole was born in Athens, Georgia, late in the 1840s. The record of his 1879 marriage identified his parents, William Cole and Martha Cole, as freedpersons, but little else is known of his youth. By early in the 1870s he was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Inspired perhaps by his parents or by the heady events of emancipation and Reconstruction, Cole developed a desire for education and self-improvement. In 1872 he enrolled in the junior class of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). Having earned promotion to the middle class, Cole left the school during the 1873–1874 academic year. By 1879 he had made his way to Essex County, where he found work as a teacher and probably also farmed. On April 21, 1879, Cole married Edith Banks, a native of the county. They had at least one daughter.

Public Free Schools!

Cole must have impressed natives of Essex as a reliable and promising figure. A black-majority county that had previously elected several Republicans, white and black, to the General Assembly, Essex possessed no shortage of viable African American politicians. Although more-stringent suffrage restrictions passed in 1876 had allowed Essex Conservatives to triumph in the election of 1877, blacks remained a potent political force. Complicating matters was the escalating conflict over the state debt, which split white Conservatives into two factions: Funders, who believed that the state’s honor and future ability to secure capital depended on paying off the antebellum debt and its accrued interest in full, and Readjusters, who favored restructuring the debt in order to allow the state to sustain and perhaps improve the funding of various programs, particularly education. Out of this tense political environment Cole emerged in 1879 as the Republican candidate for the county’s seat in the House of Delegates.

It is uncertain on which side of the debt issue Cole campaigned. Republicans had generally supported full funding of the debt. Conservative newspaper accounts of the race called Cole a Funder, cited him as a supporter of the McCullough Act (the Funders’ solution), and used his victory as evidence that Readjusters had not won a majority in the General Assembly. Most black voters, however, had begun to favor restructuring, if not repudiating, the debt. Cole’s victory over the Conservative candidate John R. Motley by a vote of 803 to 635 in a county that favored the Readjuster position suggests that Cole probably expressed at least an openness to restructuring the state debt.

William Mahone

In the House of Delegates, which opened its session on December 3, 1879, Cole joined fifteen other Republicans (ten of them African American) who formed a wedge between virtually equal numbers of Funders and Readjusters. Both of the latter groups jockeyed for the support of Republicans. After brokering satisfactory agreements with Readjuster leaders, Cole and the other black Republicans sided with the Readjusters and gave them a comfortable voting majority. The new coalition immediately voted in its slate of House officeholders, including a few African Americans, who replaced Confederate veterans in minor functions. Cole supported legislation lowering the tax on vendors of malt liquor, spirits, and wine and also a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting. He voted to elect the Readjuster chief William Mahone to the U.S. Senate and for the so-called Riddleberger Bill, which, although vetoed, became the basis of the Readjusters’ successful restructuring of the state debt in the next legislative session. During his one term Cole did not propose any major legislation. He served on the relatively insignificant Committee on Labor and Poor, which may offer some indication of his policy interests.

Nothing certain is known about Cole’s life after his term in the House ended on March 9, 1880. Later that year the census enumerator in Essex County listed him as a farmer. There is no indication in the land and tax records that he owned any property in the county, so if he did farm, he probably rented or worked as a tenant. Cole does not seem to have sought political office in Essex again and appears in no subsequent county records. Most likely he left the county to pursue other opportunities, but it is not known where he might have gone. Records from Washington, D.C., identify several men named George W. Cole, but although their ages and occupations offer plausible possibilities, no evidence ties any of them directly to the former Virginia legislator. Whatever his fate, Cole played a role in one of the most important political movements in nineteenth-century Virginia.

Late in the decade, George W. Cole is born in Athens, Georgia, to William Cole and Martha Cole.
George W. Cole enrolls in the junior class of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
George W. Cole leaves the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
George W. Cole settles in Essex County.
George W. Cole is the Republican candidate for Essex County's seat in the House of Delegates and is elected to that office.
March 9, 1880
George W. Cole's term in the House of Delegates ends.
April 21, 1879
George W. Cole and Edith Banks, of Essex County, marry. They will have at least one daughter.
  • Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. [Lexington]: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
  • Slaughter, James B. Settlers, Southerners, Americans: The History of Essex County, Virginia: 1608–1984. [Tappahannock, Virginia]: Essex County Board of Supervisors, 1985.
  • Whitley, William Bland. “Cole, George William.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 354–355. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
APA Citation:
Whitley, William & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George William Cole (d. after June 10, 1880). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cole-george-william-d-after-june-10-1880.
MLA Citation:
Whitley, William, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George William Cole (d. after June 10, 1880)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.