Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
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. Althoughhad 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: , 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.
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 theas 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.