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.
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. According to Powhatan Bouldin, 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 reached the same conclusion, 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 his later testimony, 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's telling, 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.
At this point, a nearby black police officer, Robert J. Adams, was summoned to separate the combatants. According to his later testimony, 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 when asked about it later by 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 asked an African American bystander, 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.
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, referred to the "Danville Massacre." So did the New York Times, which described in its headline "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."
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."
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 the words of 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."
November 1879 - The Readjuster Party wins majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
March 4, 1881 - William Mahone, a Readjuster, begins his term in the U.S. Senate.
March 14, 1881 - Almost 300 African American Republicans convene in Petersburg and decide to endorse the Readjuster Party in the important 1881 general election.
1882 - Readjusters win eight of twelve seats on the Danville Common Council. Four of the elected Readjusters are African American.
Summer 1883 - Nearly 100 men are indicted in Danville for carrying concealed firearms, a spike in the normal number.
October 1883 - Twenty-eight white men and businesses in Danville sign their names to the anti-Readjuster broadside "Coalition Rule in Danville," also known as the Danville Circular. It targets African Americans as a disruptive presence in the city.
November 2, 1883 - William E. Sims, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Readjusters, denounces the Danville Circular outside Danville's old post office.
November 3, 1883 - Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve street fight in Danville that leaves at least one white and four black men dead.
November 6, 1883 - Democrats win a large majority in both houses of the General Assembly, unseating the Readjuster Party.
November 13–21, 1883 - The so-called Committee of Forty meets in Danville to investigate the violence of November 3. It concludes that African Americans were to blame.
May 27, 1884 - The U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections concludes that whites were to blame for the violence in Danville on November 3, 1883.
November 1885 - The Democratic Party sweeps to power, winning all statewide elected offices. The Readjuster Party dissolves, with many of its members becoming Republicans.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Danville Riot (1883). (2015, June 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Danville_Riot_1883.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Danville Riot (1883)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Jun. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: June 23, 2015 | Last modified: June 29, 2015
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.