On October 22, 1867, African-American men voted in Virginia for the first time. In King George County white and black men placed their ballots in separate ballot boxes. The army officers who oversaw the election recorded the votes of white and black men on separate lists. (Photo courtesy of The Library of Virginia)
A tattered-at-the-edges Jamaican spice box, with a slot at the top and fading letters reading “Colored,” once held the first ballots cast by black Virginians.
Library of Virginia curator and historian Gregg Kimball explains, “These were votes for delegates to the state’s first constitutional convention after the Civil War. It shows you how they were putting this together on the fly; there’s no standardization. Everybody knows for whom these freedmen are voting. And think about this: It’s highly likely that your former master may now employ you, and he’s standing there watching you vote.”
Despite the potential hazard at the polls, 90 percent of eligible blacks voted. The results sent 24 blacks to the 105-member constitutional convention that met from December 1867 through April 1868. Pretty astounding, right? Between 1867 and 1891, the state also had interracial juries, an interracial third party, black representatives in both houses of the General Assembly and a black man from Louisa County in Congress.
But by 1902, these new political participants were stripped of many of their rights and wouldn’t regain them for almost 70 years.
The Civil War has the narrative benefit of a beginning, middle and end over four years while the aftereffects of Reconstruction still reverberate today.
In a Jacobin interview this summer, historian Eric Foner, who wrote Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877, said: “The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, ‘They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.’ Well, that’s completely untrue ...”
Kimball agrees. “In terms of public memory, it’s not easy to think about the messiness of it. It’s not a period that we as Americans want to look back on. [And] I cannot stress enough how violent this period was.”
Foner and Kimball point to the federal government for the collapse of Reconstruction. “You have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law, “ Foner said. “There were these constitutional amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.”
A trial jury pool for the May 1867 session of the U. S. Circuit Court for the District of Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Cook Photograph Collection, The Valentine)
Kimball makes connections to current events. “There are shades of today. There was mass immigration into the North and that becomes a preoccupation along with labor movements and other problems. …This whole process of black equality was sabotaged. It was as if the North tired of trying to make it happen and said, ‘You Southerners take care of it.’ The federal government really withdrew from enforcing.”
With the recent opening of the Library of Virginia’s “Remaking Virginia,” an exhibition about post-Civil War life in Virginia and the upcoming January reopening of the city’s Black History Museum and Cultural Center, we explore what Reconstruction looked like in Virginia and in Richmond through a series of questions.
“The revelatory piece of the exhibition,” Kimball says, “was that Virginia had such a sustained black political participation, especially with the [interracial] Readjusters period, that went into the 1880s and 1890s, beyond the formal end of Reconstruction, which was 1877.”
Q: What was the Underwood Constitution?
A: Virginia needed a new state constitution, and a convention to draft this document was convened in 1867.
The convention platform proceeded from the acknowledgements that slavery and secession were over, though whites needed to retain control of the state and called for immediate readmission to the Union without restrictions on former Confederates.
Federal Judge John Curtiss Underwood chaired the convention and his ideas for the document included universal suffrage for white and black men — and even white women. Underwood, raised by devout Presbyterian parents in Herkimer, New York, became a progressive lawyer who opposed slavery. In 1839, he married Maria Gloria Jackson, once Underwood’s student and a cousin of Thomas J. Jackson who later earned the sobriquet of “Stonewall.”
Underwood managed labor experiments that raised the ire of his Clarke County (now West Virginia) neighbors because he paid black laborers. As a federal judge, he advocated the arrest and trial of both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
In the end, the “Underwood Constitution” assured voting rights for black and white men, established a public education system, redistributed taxes, made illegal any discrimination in the selection of juries, assured debtors of their safety in times of economic reversals and increased the number of elective offices.
The political opposition for revamping of the state’s laws coalesced from not always agreeable personalities. Fear and hatred of social integration and blacks voting outweighed political differences, however, causing the chartering in Richmond of the statewide Conservative party — a haphazard amalgamation of moderate Republicans, Democrats, and law-and-order Whigs. The Democrats were hostile to black participation, and the Republican Party, a beacon for the anti-slavery movement, was a disliked minority.
Moderate Republican Gilbert C. Walker was elected governor while the Conservatives dominated the state legislature.
Q: During Reconstruction, uniform public education came to Virginia. Who provided schooling for Blacks in Richmond?
A: By July 1870, a uniform state-supported public school system was established, but was divided by race.
Immediately after the Civil War ended, Richmond experienced a wave of freed people seeking learning previously denied them. This surge brought challenges that ranged from finding qualified teachers to locating appropriate places to hold classes.
Between the Evacuation Fire’s destruction of potential class spaces and white hostility toward black advancement, the Reconstruction teachers faced punishing challenges that included beatings in the streets while federal officers chose not to get involved.
The barracks of the former Confederate Chimborazo military hospital on Church Hill first became a center for receiving displaced freed people and then a school with some 59 students ranging in age from 4 to 26. By 1869, there were 76 students and just two instructors, Quaker missionary women.
That was a typical situation: The teachers in these schools were mostly from mission-based religious organizations, however, some African-American teachers taught without any external aid.
First African Baptist Church at Broad and College streets was the hub of religious and cultural life in Richmond. (Photo courtesy of The Library of Virginia)
The American Baptist Home Mission Society organized a school that eventually became Virginia Union on the site of Robert Lumpkin’s Shockoe slave emporium. Nathaniel Colver, a longtime abolitionist, educator and administrator for the society, arrived in Richmond in May 1867 to serve as its principal. Mary Lumpkin, a former slave and the widow of Robert Lumpkin, needed to support her five children, so she offered to rent the former “hell’s half acre” of buildings for a school.
Colver, in his 70s but resolved to make the Richmond school the capstone of his career, started without books, furniture or equipment. He wrote to his successor, “The field is new and peculiar… Progress is very slow, and much patience is required.”
Ralza M. Manly stood at the center of this whirlwind of education. He was white, from Vermont, and of clergy, in his case Methodist. At Fort Monroe in Hampton during the war, he organized schools for illiterate soldiers and insisted that they be treated as “men and the best specimens of the colored race.” Manly was made superintendent of public education for the federally funded Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Virginia. He established Richmond Colored Normal School and with federal money built an impressive building on 12th Street facing Shockoe Valley.
Manly fully equipped the school, down to a science laboratory and 500 books in the library. The teachers were white women paid through Northern missionary groups. Courses included Latin, German, French, algebra, science, history, geography, cartography, music and government.
Northern money petered out during the 1870s, and Manly convinced city leaders to absorb Normal into the city system. From that time on, funding never matched need and the physical conditions of black schools deteriorated. Still, their educational standards remained above the standards of most fully-funded white schools.
By the 1880s Normal was the school attended by John Mitchell Jr., who as an adult published the crusading Richmond Planet weekly newspaper and became a well-respected black leader; future community organizer, businesswoman and self-determination advocate Maggie Lena Walker; and editor, activist and musician Wendell Phillips Dabney.
Dabney, son of renowned caterer John Dabney, later recalled the fisticuffs and rock throwing between the whites of Central School (located a block away in the former Confederate White House) and the blacks of Normal. Dabney didn’t consider the fracases motivated by hatred. The afternoon scraps were anticipated with some excitement until school authorities ordered that the blacks walk on one side of the street and whites the other. Dabney wrote, “In Richmond white boys and colored boys had played together and fought together and therefore knew what each other would do.”
Q: What was the Readjuster Party?
A: Efforts throughout the South to cuild interracial political groups to acknowledge black political power lasted briefly and only one, the Readjusters in Virginia, really worked — though not for long. The Readjusters also serve as one of the few examples in the country of a third party that achieved credible success.
It took the brassiness of William Mahone, a bantam former Confederate general and railroad executive, to work the levers in Richmond. Mahone, the son of a Southampton County tavern owner, wasn’t old school. He did things his way, including tactics Virginia blue blood politicians wouldn’t stoop to — like campaigning.
The Readjusters were borne of a financial dispute. By 1870, Virginia’s state debt totaled $45 million. Most of the total originated from when Virginia also included West Virginia. “Funders” (most of whom were Conservatives) felt Virginia was honor-bound to pay. Others wanted to “readjust” the debt down. The Readjusters stoked dissatisfaction about the ruling Conservatives’ choice to honor the pre-war and post-war debt at the expense of public services like the fledgling schools.
During their short reign, Readjusters were elected governor, to both U.S. Senate seats, and to six of the state’s 10 seats in Congress. The coalition also controlled the state legislature and the courts. Three state senators and 11 delegates were black.
The Readjusters held and distributed the state’s many coveted federal patronage positions. The party legitimized and promoted African-American citizenship and political power by advocating the right of blacks to vote, hold office and serve on juries.
The party didn’t come into full power until 1882. Petersburg’s William E. Cameron became governor. His administration abolished anti-black voting regulations, established what became Virginia State University, increased financial support to public schools and chartered labor unions.
Then things went wrong.
In Danville, Virginia, a Readjuster stronghold, white residents complained that blacks didn’t show proper public deference. On Nov. 3, 1883, a white clerk started to walk around two black men on a sidewalk. The clerk tripped. Angry words mushroomed into a riot that left four blacks and one white dead by gunshot. Armed vigilante whites roamed the streets for several days.
The event came as a boon to Democrats with a statewide election coming in the next week. They spun the event as a race riot and blamed Readjuster misrule for not controlling black aggression.
The Readjusters were routed from the General Assembly.
Q: How did segregation spread?
A: “The segregation begun in the decade following the Civil War did not spread inexorably and evenly across the face of the South,” former University of Richmond president and historian Ed Ayers says. “The 1880s saw much uncertainty and much bargaining, many forays and retreats.”
The actual term “segregation” wouldn’t enter widespread usage until the early 20th century. “Segregation had to be invented,” Ayers says. One of its handmaidens was transit technology.
Railroads didn’t want to be in the position of determining the race of its passengers and disputes arose when blacks who had bought first-class tickets were denied their seats. The arguments turned into lawsuits and one Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, established in 1896 the qualification of “separate but equal.”
In post-war Richmond, privately owned horse-drawn cars displayed white or black balls on their roofs to signal who was allowed the fare, though this was dropped by the 1870s. In 1904, the Virginia legislature quietly passed a law allowing — not requiring — the electric streetcar companies to discriminate by race.
Jackson Ward Alderman John Mitchell Jr. in a photo that ran in the Richmond Planet newspaper on Feb. 16, 1895. Mitchell became the Planet’s editor in 1884 and continued until 1929. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell Jr. and businesswoman Maggie Walker orchestrated a boycott that lasted a year and crippled the Virginia Passenger & Power Company, which was already hurting from labor unrest. The legislature modified its 1904 decision and codified transit segregation law. The VP&P shortly went into receivership and reorganized. Mitchell never rode the streetcar again. He ultimately bought a Stanley Steamer motorcar.
Q: Virginia had Black representatives in Congress, in the General Assembly and on city councils though the 1890s. Then what happened?
A: Former diplomat and lawyer John Mercer Langston (uncle of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes) ran in 1888 as a Republican for the Fourth Congressional District, but this offended the old Readjuster William Mahone, who now controlled the Republican Party in Virginia and wanted no challengers to his party leadership. This made for a vexing situation as Langston had been among the first Republicans in the 1850s. Mahone pushed Langston to run as an independent against Democrat challenger Edward Venable.
Venable’s election involved widespread fraud, and Langston appealed the decision. It took Langston 18 months of hearings before Congress to be seated. On his first day, the entire Democratic Congressional delegation staged a walk out. Langston served five and a half months until his term expired and was not re-elected.
John Mitchell’s eight years on city council ended on June 8, 1896, with him as a lame duck. A fraudulent election worsened by the Walton Act, which made ballots far more difficult to understand, ended his Jackson Ward political career. His last official act was to publicly thank Democrat William M. Turpin, a white lawyer, president of council and occasional Mitchell ally, for his “fearless advocacy.”
The Virginia Constitution of 1902 enshrined Jim Crow with a poll tax and an “understanding” clause, which disqualified would-be voters if they were unable to interpret a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of registrars.
This constitution disenfranchised about 90 percent of the black men who still voted at the beginning of the 20th century and nearly half of the white men. This disenfranchisement of blacks and some whites hamstrung the democratic process in Virginia for most of the 20th century. The document did not receive its overhaul until 1970.
Mitchell editorialized later that as long as the Reconstruction U.S. Constitution amendments remained, blacks would eventually regain full voting rights. But he’d lost faith in change from the ballot box. The old fighter’s energy waned, though he participated in a 1921 protest run for governor on an all-black ticket, with Maggie Walker as superintendent for public education.
- March 3, 1865: Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands within the War Department.
- 1866: The 14th Amendment, which protected the rights of freedmen, was submitted by Congress to the states for ratification.
- Jan. 9, 1867: The Virginia General Assembly voted not to ratify the 14th Amendment.
- March 2, 1867: Congress, led by Radical Republicans dissatisfied by events in the former Confederate states, placed the South under military administration. Virginia was designated Military District Number One, and Major Gen. John M. Schofield was appointed commander.
- Oct. 22, 1867: Under military government, African-American males in Virginia voted for the first time. Ballots were cast for delegates to the state constitutional convention.
- Dec. 3 1867 – April 17, 1868: The Virginia constitutional convention met. Schofield did not allow the required referendum on the constitution to take place because it disenfranchised many former Confederates.
- July 6, 1869: The Virginia Constitution, providing universal manhood suffrage, finally went to voters and was passed. A provision that disenfranchised former Confederates was defeated.
- Oct. 8, 1869: Virginia voted to ratify the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment (which gave African-American men the right to vote) as part of the requirement for being readmitted to the Union.
- Jan. 26, 1870: President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act readmitting Virginia to the Union and its representatives into Congress. Military rule was over.
- July 1870: The General Assembly, which includes 30 black members, establishes a uniform system of public, yet segregated, free schools.
- July 1870: The Freedmen’s Bureau winds down all operations, except soldiers’ bounties.
- March 17 – May 29,1870: When George Chahoon, the appointed Radical Republican mayor of Richmond, refused to step down for the elected mayor, Conservative newspaper publisher Henry K. Ellyson, the “Municipal War” erupted, resulting in two city governments and street violence. Anthony Keily, a Roman Catholic Confederate veteran and editor, eventually was elected mayor in 1871.
- March 4, 1877: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden each claim victory in the 1876 presidential election. In a political deal, Republicans agree to abandon Reconstruction policies in exchange for the presidency.
- June 26, 1902: A new state constitution disenfranchises African-American voters. This constitution is not reversed until 1971. The 1971 constitution incorporated changes mandated by the civil rights movement, such as the federal Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. These pieces of legislation invalidated many of the segregation and Jim Crow voting requirements present in the 1902 constitution.
The 1883 Protest of the Richmond 10
The protest serves as one of the first school strikes by blacks in the country
Richmond Normal School at 12th and Clay streets. (Photo courtesy of The Valentine)
Maggie Lena Walker was the daughter of a former slave, Elizabeth Draper, who worked as a servant at the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a pro-Unionist and spy for the North during the Civil War. Walker’s father was Eccles Cuthburt, an Irish-born journalist and a frequent guest at the Van Lew home.
A formalized marriage wasn’t possible and Walker recalled that her mother married the lightest skinned man she could find, William Mitchell, a butler for Van Lew. Following Mitchell’s 1876 disappearance and death (likely the victim of a robbery), mother, older daughter Maggie and baby brother Johnnie were impoverished.
Walker worked as a laundress with her mother while attending Richmond Colored Normal School. She joined the congregation of First African Baptist Church and at age 14 became a member of the Good Idea Council No. 16 of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a mutual benefit organization. She rose through the society. She at 16 went as a delegate to the biannual national convention and the next year served as secretary of the Good Idea Council. Walker began a long association with the Order of St. Luke that she later built into a great force for empowerment, especially among black women.
Walker was a member of Richmond Normal School’s class of 1883, which also included Wendell P. Dabney.
The city’s segregation policy allowed white schools to make their commencement presentations at the Richmond Theatre, while the black schools went most often to the sanctuary of First African Baptist Church. Normal School classmates banded together to protest, including Walker and Dabney. They announced to the school’s white principal, Mary Elizabeth Knowles, their intention to graduate in the Richmond Theatre.
This followed an arraignment of the 10 before the white school administration. The meeting, according to Dabney, was a “verbal pyrotechnical display.” The administrators told the students how grateful they should be for their advancement. They were also threatened with refusal of their graduation. The 10, though anxious, remained steadfast. Their parents paid taxes same as the whites did – supporting white schools, too — and a graduation in the theater was as much their right.
The Richmond Theatre allowed blacks only in the balconies and that space couldn’t accommodate the graduates’ families. The group, challenged by the administration and rebuked by the venue, held the commencement in Normal’s inadequate assembly room. These students had undertaken one of the first school strikes by blacks in the history of the country.
That fall, Walker started teaching at Normal. The position of educator served as a major avenue for professional advancement among blacks. While teaching, she studied accounting. Her understanding of figures matured into her founding and presidency of the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank.
Movie to Highlight Harassment of Freedmen’s Bureau Workers
(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Harper's Weekly 1868)
The Civil War has been extensively addressed in film, but the era of Reconstruction has been a topic rarely addressed in the movies.
Acclaimed Richmond-based filmmaker Rick Alverson takes up the subject in his new project,
The Well-Dressed Man.
The subject of the fictional, narrative film concerns a Freedmen’s Bureau educator contending with harassment from the Ku Klux Klan.
Alverson has started casting and intends to shoot the film near Richmond and Roanoke.
One of the few major cinematic efforts to deal with Reconstruction is D.W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of A Nation, the 1915 film that changed cinema but also glamorized the Ku Klux Klan.
Griffith went Hollywood on that part of history. The proto-Klan after the war had dressed in elaborate and strange costumes designed for psychological intimidation.
“Griffith put them all in white and hoods and operate in this militaristic manner and the second Klan [of the 1920s] thought this was a good look and adopted it,” Alverson says.
Looking at period lithographs Alverson was amazed at the variety and weirdness of the Klan’s costumes. “It speaks to the disturbing nature of this period,” he says. “Aesthetic actualities can reanimate our consideration to see through the confusion of history, which is necessary for people to be invested.”
Alverson doesn’t know when filming may begin as he’s seeking support for the project. His current film, Entertainment, is out this month.