Petersburg Convention of March 14, 1881


On March 14, 1881, almost 300 African American men representing Republicans in a majority of the cities and counties of Virginia met in convention in Petersburg. The purpose of the convention was to decide whether their party should cooperate with or endorse the new Readjuster Party in the important 1881 general election, in which the voters would elect a new General Assembly and a new governor. By day’s end, most delegates agreed to a statement of principles that endorsed supporting Virginia’s Readjusters while remaining loyal to the national Republican Party. The convention marked an important turning point in the state’s political history. With African American support, the Readjusters won majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia and were able to pass reform laws, refinance the debt, and increase funding for public schools.


William Evelyn Cameron

The Readjuster Party had been founded two years earlier at a biracial convention in Richmond to unite men of various political factions who wanted to refinance the public debt at a lower rate of interest and repudiate a portion of the original principal in order to preserve revenue for the new public school system. For nearly a decade by then, payment of interest on the debt left over from before the American Civil War (1861–1865) had starved the public school system, and debates about whether to pay the debt in full or scale it back deeply divided the state’s politics. African Americans had taken part in founding the Readjuster Party, but most black voters identified themselves firmly with the Republican Party in state and national politics. In attendance for at least part of the convention was the mayor of Petersburg, William E. Cameron, a Readjuster whose administration had been notably fair to the city’s large African American population.

The Convention

The Petersburg convention was a raucous meeting, and in addition to the nearly 300 delegates a large number of spectators viewed the proceedings from the gallery, and some of them tried to speak from the floor. 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. Suspicious of white political leaders whom they believed did not always put the interests of African Americans first, those delegates were reluctant to lose control of their own political agenda by becoming part of a larger political organization with white leadership.

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 the Readjusters’ leader, former Confederate general William Mahone first took his seat in the U.S. Senate that day, he voted with the Republicans to organize the Senate that had been divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans in Petersburg cheered the news because it meant that Democrats would not control the Senate and that Mahone, by cooperating with the Republican senators and president, would be well-positioned to provide federal jobs to African Americans and other Republicans and be able to build the state’s Republican Party into a formidable biracial organization.

Although a few black men stormed out of the convention when they did not get their way in the choice of convention officers, most remained, endorsed the long statement of principles and purposes that the delegates adopted at the end of the day when offering their support to the Readjuster Party, and advised other black voters to do the same. “To the jury,” one part of their address declared, “the free schools, and the ballot we look as the highest earnests and the best safeguards of all that is valuable in our citizenship, and it is with the most fervent aspiration that we seek the final obliteration in politics of that color-line which, disastrous to the nation, the State, and all the people, has been especially hurtful to ourselves as a race.”

The declaration also reaffirmed the delegates’ allegiance to the national Republican Party in spite of the weaknesses of the state Republican Party. “The Republican party of the Nation is not in question here and now,” they declared. “The National Republican party, from its advent to the present moment, has given too many evidences of its friendship to the rights of man for us to renounce our allegiance to it in any time of need.”

The declaration concluded with a strong endorsement of the Readjuster Party. “Resolved, That the colored people of Virginia, in convention assembled, in the city of Petersburg, regard the Re-Adjuster party with favor, and confidently believe that their interests will be better secured and preserved by aiding that party in its efforts to achieve and permanently settle the antagonism of races, which has unfortunately affected the prosperity of our State.”


Virginia.—The Readjuster State Convention at Richmond

The following June, the Readjuster Party state convention, in which numerous black delegates took part, nominated Mayor Cameron for governor and white supporters of reform for lieutenant governor and attorney general. The party’s ticket defeated the Conservative Party ticket in the autumn election, and Readjusters won large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. The 1881–1882 session of the General Assembly passed numerous important reform laws, refinanced the debt, reduced taxes on farmers, increased funding for the public schools, created a college and an mental institution for black Virginians, and also abolished the brutal and humiliating whipping post for punishing African Americans, a holdover from slavery. The successes of the Readjuster administration and assembly would not have been possible without the support of African American voters and officeholders, and the action of the Petersburg convention helped make it possible for those voters to join in a biracial coalition with white voters independent of the Republican Party.

March 14, 1881
Almost 300 African American Republicans convene in Petersburg and decide to endorse the Readjuster Party in the important 1881 general election.
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APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Petersburg Convention of March 14, 1881. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/petersburg-convention-of-march-14-1881.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Petersburg Convention of March 14, 1881" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2022, May 18
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