An illustration for the 15th Amendment, which in 1870 granted African-American men the right to vote. (Photo courtesy: Library of Virginia)
The end of slavery in Virginia, and throughout the South, was the sociopolitical equivalent of a meteor slamming into Earth. The old order was swept away, yet many of its adherents clung on in an effort to perpetuate a kind of bondage, absent actual chains, through political restriction. This period of history is the subject of the Library of Virginia’s new exhibition, “Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation,” which runs from July 6 to March 26, 2016.
“I can’t think of another example in world history — connected to a civil conflict — that also involved the freeing of an enslaved people on such a scale,” says Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach.
Emancipation, however, was not a magic wand. Enormous resistance greeted the incorporation of African-Americans into the national structure — in particular, its educational system. For centuries in the United States, blacks had been denied access to anything more than rudimentary learning. In Virginia, it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write.
“African-Americans were the pioneers of mass education,” Kimball says. “Virginia had no comprehensive public school system until after the 1870 Underwood Convention that redrafted the state Constitution.” And yet, its extension of education to all “ends with an unfulfilled promise and segregation.”
Objects on display include a ballot box used by some of the first black voters and a list of delegates to the Underwood Convention, with the names of the first blacks to be elected in Virginia. Reconstruction efforts were hampered by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, organized to sabotage whatever gains African-Americans made. One indication of the rough path ahead was the Norfolk riot of 1866. African-Americans took to the streets to celebrate a congressional override of a civil rights bill vetoed by President Andrew Johnson. Violence erupted, and occupation troops were called in. “U.S. soldiers had a pitched stand-off with ex-Confederates in Norfolk’s streets,” Kimball says.
Still, efforts at biracial politics lasted longer in Virginia than in other Southern states with the rise of the Readjuster Party, which included both black and white members, but then things fell apart. “The Danville Riot of 1883 and the  Constitution mark the end, really, of Virginia’s attempt to come to terms with Emancipation,” Kimball says.
On July 6, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., the Library of Virginia will sponsor a discussion on the legacy of early African-American legislators and Underwood Convention delegates. 692-3500 or lva.virginia.gov.