Since the abolition of slavery in 1865, African Americans in Virginia had been participating in politics and slowly gaining influence. In 1879, the Readjuster Party won control of both houses of the General Assembly and a year later elected its leader, the former Confederate general and railroad tycoon, to the . When Mahone caucused with the majority Republican Party, he gave , many of whom were African American, significant new power. In 1881, a in Petersburg voted to formally ally themselves with the Readjusters, which came to be known, in some quarters, as the Coalition.
The rise of the Readjusters caused significant anxiety among many white Virginians. In Danville, a rapidly growing city in Pittsylvania County known for its tobacco factories, Readjusters won a two-thirds majority of the twelve-member city council in 1882. Four of the those seats each went to white and black Readjusters, but many white Democrats nevertheless portrayed this as “Negro domination.” (Although African Americans represented just a third of the council seats, they actually outnumbered whites in the city’s population.) White anxiety was not entirely political, however. Many whites in Danville found it socially challenging to witness African Americans, many of whom had been enslaved twenty years earlier, exercising their rights as U.S. citizens by holding office, by selling goods in the open-air markets, or by merely passing a white person on the street without showing deference.
During the summer of 1883, ahead of state elections in November, partisan feeling was running especially high. Although arrests in Danville were down overall in the past year, incidents involving concealed firearms had gone way up—nearly 100 indictments just that summer. (Concealed firearms could be used to intimidate political opponents and generally were more dangerous in times of crisis.) The historian Jane Dailey has suggested the high number of arrests may have been due to political rivals reporting each other to the police. At the same time, many whites had become sensitive to behavior they described as black “insolence” and present-day scholars have called “resistance.” These behaviors challenged cultural patterns that had developed under slavery, such as deferring to white people in speech and action. In Danville, some African Americans had taken to reserving words such as “gentleman” and “lady” for fellow African Americans; others refused to give way to whites on the city’s sidewalks.
In October 1883, a group of twenty-eight white merchants and businesses in Danville lent their names to the broadside “Coalition Rule in Danville,” or what became known as the Danville Circular. Published in various newspapers and addressed “To the Citizens of the Southwest and Valley of Virginia,” the document outlined “the injustice and humiliation to which our white people have been subjected and are daily undergoing by the domination and misrule of the radical or negro party.”
The Danville Circular complained about an unfair tax burden, gerrymandered districts, “carpetbagger” politicians, a corrupt police court, and African American political appointees. The city council, for instance, had appointed four black policemen to its force of nine—”something before that time unknown to the history of the town”—and allowed twenty of twenty-four stalls in the market to be leased by African Americans. According to the Circular, “The market, once occupied in all its stalls by polite white gentlemen, with their clean white aprons, and the most inticing meats and vegetables upon their boards, is now the scene of filth, stench, crowds of loitering and idle negroes, drunkenness, obscene language, and petit thieves.”
The Circular argued that this state of affairs had contributed to noncompliant behavior, in general, by the city’s African Americans. “Negro women have been known to force ladies from the pavement,” the signatories wrote, “and remind them that they will ‘learn to step aside next time.'” The Circular also mentioned incidents of purported violence, “threatening gestures,” and “several cases where the lie has been given to a white lady to her face by a negro.”
These various grievances were placed in the context of the upcoming election for seats in the General Assembly. Vote against the Readjusters and the Republicans, the Circular made clear, and the white citizens of Danville and other parts of Virginia can eventually wrest African Americans not only from political power but from the city space—from sight.
On the evening of November 2—the Friday before Election Day—William E. Sims, a white man and the chairman of the Pittsylvania County Readjusters, publicly denounced the Danville Circular to a large, open-air crowd of mostly African Americans.to , editor of the Danville Times, Sims “began to read the circular by paragraphs, commenting as he went, and trying to answer the charges. ‘Another lie,’ he would say, at the end of each sentence.” After Sims had finished declaring all the signatories to be “liars, scoundrels and cowards,” Bouldin recalled that “the negroes applauded.”
With hindsight, Bouldin described Sims’s actions as inflammatory: “Can anything be imagined better calculated to bring on a row?” The Staunton Spectator, writing on November 6, “If W. E. Sims had not made the speech he did to the negroes the night before the riot at Danville, it is probable that the riot would not have occurred, and he is more culpable than the insolent negro who used the language that caused a white man to strike him …”
A Street Encounter
There is little consensus about what exactly happened on November 3, but witnesses do seem to agree that it all began when a white man struck a black man. It happened about 1:30 in the afternoon. Charles D. Noel (sometimes Noell), a white clerk in his late twenties, was walking down Main Street when, in front of the H. D. Guerrant & Co. store, he passed two African American men, tripping over the feet of one of them. According to, Noel turned to one of the men, Henderson “Hense” Lawson, a barkeep or waiter in his early twenties, and “asked him what did he do that for.”
“His reply,” Noel recalled, “was, in a very insolent manner: ‘I was getting out of the way of a lady, and a white lady at that.'”
Noel said he told Lawson it was “all right,” which upset Lawson’s companion, Davis Lewellyn (sometimes spelled Lewellin), a factory worker also in his early twenties. According to Noel, Lewellyn shouted that it hardly mattered whether it was “all right” because Lawson had done nothing wrong. By, Lawson said “Excuse me” to the white man only to be met with a series of racially charged epithets. Whatever the case, Noel admitted to confronting Lawson and then hitting him. Lawson and Lewellyn both retaliated, knocking Noel off the sidewalk and into the gutter.
The two black men, Lawson and Lewellyn, then left. At some point, Noel walked to the Opera House, where local Democrats had been meeting since that morning. Led by Congressman George C. Cabell, they were preparing a written response to Sims’s attack the night before on the Danville Circular. At the Opera House, Noel recruited two friends, George A. Lea and W. R. Taylor, to help him take revenge on the black men. When they found Lawson and Lewellyn, Noel—again by his own admission—struck Lawson. As a crowd of African Americans began to form around the combatants, Lea and Taylor, according to Noel, “drew their pistols and told them to stand back and allow fair play.” According to Lawson, Lea used a racial epithet in threatening to kill all of the black bystanders.
At this point, a nearby black police officer, Robert J. Adams, was summoned to separate the combatants. According to his, he had all but ended the fight when George Adams, a black man unrelated to the police officer, “snatched Lea off the sidewalk down in the gutter” in an attempt to take his pistol away. Lea won the struggle, and as he “raised out of the gutter he shot,” presumably at his attacker. He missed.
The policeman called for reinforcements and two arrived, a black and a white officer. In the meantime, the crowd of bystanders, most of them African Americans who had wandered over from the city market, began to grow much larger.
The Violence Escalates
A white militia captain arrived on the scene, as did E. M. Hatcher, who had been meeting with the Democrats at the Opera House. According to Adams’s testimony, he used a racial epithet in ordering the police officer to clear the street of African Americans. Earlier, George Lea had also ordered Adams to do his bidding, and whenby a U.S. Senate committee, he explained: “Well, we generally speak that way to that class of people down there. We are in the habit of ordering them … I would not speak to them in the same way I would speak to a white man.”
The ever-growing crowd of African Americans now numbered as many as 100, perhaps more, and about half of them were women and children, according to the deposition of a bystander. While about twenty white men stood by, some with pistols raised, African Americans demanded that Lea be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. The white police officer, Charles Freeman, urged them to go home, but they refused.
Two things then happened at once. Walter Holland, a white Democrat, stepped off the sidewalk toward one of the policemen. And several of the white men, including Lea, raised their pistols and fired.
A Senator later, R. W. Glass, whether the white men had “fired in the air.” Glass, who had expressed reservations about safely returning to Danville after his testimony, replied: “Well, I didn’t see them fire up in the air … I think they raised their pistols a little. I think some of them did, and I think some of them shot right in the crowd. Don’t think all raised their pistols.”
When the smoke cleared, Holland and three black men—Terry Smith, Edward Davis, and another whose name is unknown—lay dead in the street. A fourth black man died later of his wounds.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and after the crowd had scattered, white men with guns began looking for black citizens. William P. Graves found and confronted Charles Adams, the policeman’s brother, who had come out of a store to calm his horse. According to Officer Adams, Graves shot at Charles Adams twice, wounding him once in the right arm. Graves denied shooting Adams or that the horses Adams had tried to calm even existed.
Jack Redd, an African American Readjuster, testified that he saw Charles Adams bleeding and then the white crowd fired on him, prompting him to run. When the white men caught up with him, they delivered a beating and might have killed him were it not for the intervention of Congressman Cabell.
The town’s white militia and—against the urgings of Mayor J. H. Johnston—a number of its white citizens organized armed patrols to keep the streets clear of African Americans for the next several days. Democrats spread news of the violence and blamed it on Danville’s blacks. Aided in part by that strategy, they won a large majority in the General Assembly three days later, on November 6. Few African Americans voted in Danville, some saying later that they feared for their lives. Several African American city officials, meanwhile, resigned their positions. By 1885, the party had captured all statewide offices and the Readjusters had ceased to exist. The Republican Party, meanwhile, was all but gone already. No Republican won statewide office in Virginia between 1881 and 1969.
Explanations and Legacy
The Danville Riot, according to the lawyer Beverley Bland Munford, writing in 1905, “was nothing more nor less than a street fight between whites and blacks.” Although Munford did not say this explicitly, he seemed to imply that it was not, in fact, a riot, at least in the sense that calls to mind a large and violent group of people. Many white Virginians and their allies propagated the sense in the months and years that followed that the incident was an African American riot, and their preferred language came to define the events of November 3, 1883. Institutions less sympathetic to Democratic politics, such as the Chicago Tribune, which was owned by Republicans,to the “Danville Massacre.” So did the New York Times, which “Inoffensive Negroes Shot Down in Great Numbers by Inflamed Whites.” The historian Jane Dailey has also used the word “massacre,” suggesting, like the Times, that Danville’s African Americans were defenseless and their killing a crime.
In their own defense, some of Danville’s white citizens denied that any white man had fired into a crowd of African Americans. Others insisted that the African Americans gathered on the street were armed, too, and that the white men had only fired in self-defense. The historian Jane Dailey has argued that no evidence exists supporting the idea that any of the black men carried weapons. “More to the point,” she has written, “the blacks outnumbered the whites by an estimated margin of ten to one. Had the black men been armed, they might have massacred the white men on the sidewalk.”
That possibility lingered for many years in the minds even of white apologists. In a 1929 remembrance of the violence—one whose headline recalled the “Intolerable Days When Republican Coalition Brought Negro Domination”—the Danville Bee marveled at how “the mysterious circumstance that only one white man was injured during this shooting in which the negroes so greatly outnumbered the white has never been explained.”
Many white Democrats blamed the Readjuster leader William Mahone for influencing African Americans to behave rebelliously. “Inflamed and crazed by the diabolical speeches which have been addressed to them by the Mahone Nihilists,” the Lynchburg News wrote in the days after the violence, “the negroes have precipitated the bloody issue, and the whites have been forced to meet it with arms in their hands.”
The city of Danville convened an investigation of the violence. The so-called Committee of Forty, dominated by white Democrats and including only one African American, heard from thirty-seven witnesses from November 13 to 21 and concluded that armed African Americans had provoked the shooting and that Danville’s African Americans in general had become “rude, insolent and intolerant to the white citizens of the town.” No one was charged or tried for any crime. On May 27, 1884, after hearing more than 160 witnesses, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections concluded the opposite of the Committee of Forty, but to equal effect.
After the violence in Danville, two things seemed abundantly clear: that the Democrats were ascendant politically and that African Americans had been forcefully rebuked. In theof the Richmond Daily Dispatch, they had been “taught a lesson.” “These negroes [in Danville] had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town,” the paper’s editor wrote. “They have been taught a lesson—a dear lesson, it is true … but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia.”
Edward Pollock, the author of the Illustrated Sketch Book of Danville, Virginia, designed to promote business in the town and published in 1885, was more explicit about what that lesson was. “Another important result of the Riot,” he wrote, “was the complete change which at once took place in the deportment of the negroes towards their white neighbors. Those who had formerly been most insolent in their conduct now became polite and respectful, ready to yield all reasonable deference to their natural superiors, and to resume, contentedly, their own legitimate position in the social scale.”