Attempted Black Suffrage in Norfolk
Early in 1865, even before the Civil War was over, African Americans in Norfolk began discussing the legal and political implications of the abolition of slavery and the end of military protection. The right to vote almost certainly was on their agenda. In February when white residents of Norfolk who had remained loyal to the Union proposed to restore civilian municipal government, African Americans petitioned the president and the commanding officer of the U.S. Army in the district to request that civilian government replace military government only on a "loyal and equal basis."
The black men of Norfolk went even further after city residents called an election—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Confederate government—of one state senator and two members of the House of Delegates to represent the city. At a meeting of the Colored Monitor Union, Norfolk's black residents decided to vote in that election. On the morning of May 25, 1865, more than 500 of them assembled in the Bute Street Methodist Church; their number doubled before the end of the day. From there they sent small delegations to polling places in the city's four wards to ascertain whether election officers would receive their votes.
Officials in three of the wards refused, but in the city's Second Ward, they agreed to record the votes of black Norfolk men on separate sheets designated as votes of men whose qualifications were in doubt. In small groups, 354 men went to the Second Ward throughout the day and voted for white candidates who pledged to support African American suffrage. The 712 residents of the other three wards remained at the church and unanimously recorded their votes for the same candidates.
Without counting the votes of the black men, the candidates for whom they voted finished a somewhat distant second in the three-way races for each of the seats in the assembly. Had the African American votes from the Second Ward alone been counted, those candidates would have won the election easily. Had all of the 1,066 votes from black men been counted, the candidates pledged to support black suffrage would have won by almost 900 votes.
It didn't matter. None of the men elected to the General Assembly that day appeared at the Capitol to claim a seat when the assembly met in June. And the men for whom the black delegates either voted or tried to vote declined to challenge the outcome. For that reason the assembly had no occasion to decide whether the exclusion of African Americans from three of the four wards or the refusal to report their votes in the Second Ward was proper. The votes did not count.
The long address to their "Fellow Citizens" began,"We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot."
The authors laid out the many legal disabilities under which freedpeople continued to labor. They explained that they desired "no expensive aid from military forces, stationed throughout the South, overbearing State action, and rendering our government republican only in name; give us the suffrage, and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves, and all Union men, and to keep the State forever in the Union."
Colored State Convention in Alexandria
More than sixty African Americans met in a Colored State Convention in Alexandria on August 2–5, 1865. Several of the principal local leaders of the Norfolk and Richmond organizations attended the state convention, which adopted several resolutions and public statements that all insisted on full citizenship and voting rights. "We claim, then, as citizens of this State," one of their declarations insisted, that "the laws of the Commonwealth shall give to all men equal protection; that each and every man may appeal to the law for his equal rights without regard to the color of his skin; and we believe this can only be done by extending to us the elective franchise, which we believe to be our inalienable right as freemen, and which the Declaration of Independence guarantees to all free citizens of this Government and which is the privilege of the nation. We claim the right of suffrage."
African American Suffrage and a New Constitution
No member of the General Assembly advocated amending the state Constitution to grant the vote to African Americans. Governor Pierpont, meanwhile, was opposed to allowing African Americans to vote because many former slaves were not literate and, he believed, therefore not competent to take part in politics. In the spring of 1867, though, Congress, through the Reconstruction Acts, imposed military rule on Virginia and the other states of the former Confederacy and required that each state adopt a new state constitution. Congress required that when the army conducted elections for members of the conventions, it permit African American men to vote and to run for seats in the convention.
On election day, October 22, 1867, a significant number of registered white voters refused to take part, and African Americans actually cast more votes than white men by a substantial margin. In most cities and counties white men voted overwhelmingly against holding the convention at all, and black men voted overwhelmingly in favor. Moreover, almost all black men voted for candidates who favored making significant reforms to the old state constitution, while most white voters opposed those candidates. As a result, men who supported radical reform won a majority of seats in the convention. Among them were two dozen African Americans, many of whom had lived in slavery until the spring of 1865.
The convention voted to include in the new constitution a section that granted the vote to adult African American men. Delegate Thomas Bayne, of Norfolk, made one of the most eloquent speeches in favor of the section. He had escaped from slavery in Virginia before the Civil War and become a doctor in New England. Bayne returned to Norfolk and in May 1865 presided over the conference that decided that black men would vote. He was also the chair of the public meeting on June 5, 1865, that published the long address on black suffrage. His speech on January 20, 1868, in favor of granting all men the right to vote reflected the beliefs held by most African American men at that time about their new place in the American nation. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson and specifically citing the Declaration of Independence, Bayne stated that all men were created equal in the eyes of God, and that no men had the right to deprive any other men of God-given rights.
"Has a man the right to live?" Bayne asked the other delegates. "Was he born a freeman? Did God make man a slave? I say, no. If God never made man a slave, man was born free, and had a right to liberty. That is the principle of the Declaration of Independence … I rejoice to-day that it is my privilege to stand on this floor and say that we are now beginning to live where we can recognize God as the great giver of all good gifts, and among them, the right of suffrage."
First African Americans in State Government
During those years, virtually all of the African American men active in Virginia politics were affiliated with the Republican Party, although some of them supported more radical proposals than others. Between 1867 and 1895, nearly 100 black Virginians served in the two houses of the General Assembly or in the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. Many of them had grown up in slavery, but some had been free before the Civil War, and others came of age afterward. Some of the members of the convention had little or no education, but by the 1880s most of the legislators were educated and well qualified. A few had very successful political careers, served their localities in the assembly for several terms, and became influential leaders in the Republican Party.
Other African Americans had briefer and less distinguished political careers or fell victim to the increasing racial prejudice and political difficulties that mounted during the century. Johnson Collins was one such man, who rose from slavery to serve one two-year term in the House of Delegates from Brunswick County, but then lost his small farm for nonpayment of taxes and had to move to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a watchman in a warehouse for two decades before his death.
White Backlash and Coalition Building
The amendments functioned as intended. The whole number of voters in the state declined by almost 10 percent immediately after ratification of the amendments, from 236,989 in the presidential election of 1876 to 212,281 in the election of 1880. The amendments no doubt contributed significantly to the reduction in the number of African Americans who won election to the General Assembly, from the upper teens in the years before 1876 to eight in 1877. It is very probable that there was a corresponding reduction in the number of African Americans who won election to local offices at the same time.
In spite of the new barriers to their participation in politics, black Virginians voted and successfully ran for public office in increasing numbers during the second half of the 1870s and 1880s. The Readjuster movement provided the motivation for the resurgence of black political action. Readjusters proposed to refinance the public debt that Virginia had created before the Civil War by reducing the rate of interest and the amount of the principal to be paid and to restore to the public schools money that had been diverted to debt service. African Americans, as well as many poor white Virginia families, had eagerly seized the opportunity to send their children to the new public schools that the General Assembly established in 1870, and were opposed to the reductions in funding. Voters of both races supported the Readjuster proposals in order to preserve the public school system.
"As to the debt," the Richmond Daily Whig reported him as saying, "we don't want to pay a cent of it. We think we paid our share of it, if it ever was justly chargeable upon us, by long years of servitude. And then, as Virginia has been reconstructed in her territory and in her government, we think that her debt should be reconstructed too."
In 1879, Readjusters won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, but a Conservative governor vetoed their debt-reduction bill. In preparation for the 1881 general election in which the voters would elect a new assembly and a new governor, about 300 African American Republicans convened in Petersburg on March 14 to decide whether to make a formal alliance with the Readjusters. It was a raucous meeting. 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.
With strong support from African American voters, the Readjusters won all the statewide offices in 1881 as well as larger majorities in the assembly. Early in 1882 the General Assembly passed a refinancing bill that significantly reduced the cost of paying the public debt, and the assembly also enacted a large number of reform measures, many of which directly benefited African Americans. It restored funding for the public schools and appointed a new state superintendent of public instruction, who replaced most of the county and city school superintendents in the state with men who were more sympathetic to the education of African Americans. The assembly abolished the whipping post as a punishment for African Americans. It also established Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the state's first public college for African Americans, and it created the first mental hospital for black Virginians. Those achievements would not have been possible without the support of African American voters and their political leadership.
African American voters contributed significantly to the success of the Readjusters and also to an increase in the number of votes for Republican presidential candidates during the remainder of the decade. The Readjusters were never a black-majority party, as their opponents charged, or under the direction of their black supporters or of Republicans. Many white men eagerly supported the Readjusters, too, and some of them as a consequence adopted a more egalitarian attitude than most white Virginians had ever entertained. Such attitudes posed a threat to white supremacy, as did the coalition's political power. This, in turn, motivated the Democratic Party to respond.
In 1884, the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly passed the Anderson-McCormick Act that replaced all officers of election in the state and authorized the assembly to appoint a three-member electoral board for each city and county. That guaranteed that white Democrats would be in charge of all elections in the state, and they often looked the other way when election tampering occurred. Sometimes they even actively connived with party officials who stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated voters, or made African Americans or known Republicans stand in long lines that prevented some of them from voting before the polls closed.
Ten years later Democrats passed the Walton Act, which introduced the so-called Australian ballot to Virginia. The state printed the names of all candidates on a ballot and required voters to mark a line through at least three-quarters of the name of each candidate they wished to vote against. That allowed vote counters wide leeway to disallow ballots cast for Republicans or African Americans and to count votes for Democrats even if not marked as clearly. It no doubt discriminated against African Americans, who were proportionally more likely than white men to be unable to read or write.
The number of African Americans who voted began to decline, and the number who won election to the General Assembly fell from eight in 1884 to six in 1885, rose to seven in 1887, and fell back to four in 1889. They were the last black legislators in Virginia until 1968. In Richmond, white political leaders redrew the city's electoral district boundaries in the 1890s to create white majority districts that made it impossible for African Americans to win municipal government elections. By the end of the century very few African Americans still held local offices anywhere in the state. Republicans in Congress had by then largely given up trying to force southern states to abide by either the letter or the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment, allowing white men in Virginia and in most other states to exclude African Americans from politics.
The white-supremacist Democratic Party thereafter retained control of both houses of the General Assembly, the statewide offices, most of the state's congressional seats, its two senate seats, and local offices in most parts of the state until the final decades of the twentieth century. From then until after World War II—except in 1921 when eight African Americans ran for statewide office and polled poorly after the state Republican Party convention refused to seat black Republican delegates—very few black Virginians ran for public office and only a very small number held minor local offices.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B. African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902). (2015, October 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/African_Americans_and_Politics_in_Virginia_1865-1902.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 27, 2015 | Last modified: October 21, 2015
Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.