Race in America: When Blacks & Whites Ruled Virginia--Racist Ideology Destroyed Their Political & Economic Power

Clarence Walker

Blacks & Whites Founded Virginia College Institute That Later Became Virginia State UniversityPhoto byAmerican System Now

Race in America: When Blacks & Whites Ruled Virginia--Racist Ideology Destroyed Their Political & Economic Power

By Clarence Walker

Decades prior to the Montgomery bus boycott,voting rights act, MLK stance against White Supremacy which ushered in the modern civil rights movement, black and white southerners struggled to create an interracial democracy in America, following the civil war, no surprise, right.

But America persevered and climbed the mountaintop to establish a modicum of progress among U.S. citizens, yet still there are political forces at work attempting to reset the clock that brought us this far.

As Florida Governor Ron Desantis glide full speed ahead to snag the Republican 2024 presidential nomination while himself and other right-wing politicans engage in the shameful banning of Black History studies and the banning of selected books written by distinguished African American authors in Florida and throughout the nation, Americans should have full access to literature they choose to read in grade level school or college. Which brings us to the overriding question: why most Republicans today are fighting against to either remove or ban Black history books from our school systems?

Working together among different races of people in this country instead of being apart is a positive way to make amends, and leave behind the vestiges of this country's past racism, inequalities, and every form of adversity levelled against progressive movements to make this country as great as it always been.

Perhaps no example is more clearer and dynamic than a mixed race group called The Readjusters that rose to prominence This well-established third-party political organization made history together by working together to gain political and economic power for both whites and blacks. What happened during this era was remarkably significant, incredible is a better term to use, when poor and working-class whites and blacks governed the state of Virginia and many of the state's major cities from 1879-1883.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readjuster_Party

It is rare history hardly talked about.

But enviness and strife from White Supremacists destroyed political accomplishments won by the Readjusters.

Blacks & Whites Form a Group Called The Readjusters

During 1880s, former black enslaved men and former white Confederate soldiers in Virginia —a state that served as the home-base to the Confederacy’s capital, these men, irrespective of their skin tone came together in brotherly fashion to fight for the future of themselves and their children. They built a political party called the Readjusters. Their demand was simple: Readjust the terms of Civil War debt to maintain free public schools and for the working class to access approriate healthcare for all. 

Aside from winning victories in education and medical care the progressive men also won control of the state’s government and achieved several more notable wins by abolishing the poll tax, the public whipping post, then they created the first public Black college in the South now known as Virginia Tech(VTech). Additional expansions were made to Virginia Tech to accomodate the working class population as well. The goal was for VTech to compete with the University of Virginia.

Readjuster Flyer 1882: Caption: Public Free SchoolsPhoto byAmerican System Now

The Readjusters’ short-lived multiracial populist movement came under fire and was attacked violently by white supremacists and defeated politically by wealthy special interest groups who spreaded outright lies and vile disinformation similar to how former president Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters have done for the last 10 years in this country beginning with the outrageous lie that former two-time president Barack Obama was born in Africa. Or the big lie that Democrats rigged the election in 2020 to steal the presidency from Trump which that same lie contributed to inciting the violence against Congress on January 6, 2021. The story of the Readjust party is nonetheless another important piece of history erased from the annals of history books. 

Deep Back Story

After the civil war ended, State of Virginia was heavily in debt with limited solutions. Realizing this moment granted an opportunity to work on ideas to turn things around, The Readjusters, a newcomer on the block seized on the state's fiscal woes. The state had over $45 million in debt, and the Readjuster members knew if the debt wasn't shrewedly dealt with that other programs were in jeopardy, particularly the state education system.

A unanimous decision between the mixed race group was to “readjust” or reduce the amount of the debt. The party drew a broad range of support, including farmers, workers, Democrats, and Republicans as well as many African Americans. In 1879, the party won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. The candidates swept all the statewide offices in 1881. While in power, the Readjusters successfully passed the Riddleberger Act that reduce the debt and interest. Around 1882, the party was losing its base and its steam, and by 1885, it ceased functioning as a political entity.

Black Political Power On the Move

Blacks achieved an unprecedented degree of political power in Virginia. For example, sixteen African American legislators served in the General Assembly, as stated, in the 1881-82 session. They passed legislation benefitting their communities by starting the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute for Negroes in Petersburg -- the South’s first state supported college for training Black teachers. The college offered a four-year classical curriculum; and a new asylum for the Black mentally-ill, was also built in Petersburg. Both institutions, according to author Edward Spannaus, were operated under Black leadership; in fact, the 1882 law creating the Normal Institute specified that six of the seven members of the Board of Visitors “shall be well-qualified colored men.”

The order represented a bold approach to hiring majority of black men to have prestigious positions.

Newfound Democrats Appeal to Voters to Help End Black Rule in VirginiaPhoto byencyclopediavirginia.org

Recalling the poignant words spoken by the first principal, author Edward Spannaus further wrote in the Loudoun County History; “No State in this country has taken a position as radical as this, placing State funds and a State institution in the hands of colored men.” Blacks became increasingly prominent in municipal governments across the state, but most notably in two cities, Danville and Petersburg, which were both under Readjuster Republican control.

Throughout other cities, Petersburg’s Readjuster-controlled City Council pursued a multi-faceted reform agenda. This included lowering real and personal property taxes, raising business taxes, and establishing an income tax and a capital-gains tax; banning the chain gang and the whipping post (before it was abolished statewide); and moving women and children out of the city jail and into a new facility. Public health measures included appointing a city physician to provide medical aid to the poor, providing home health care to the elderly, and subsiding prescription drug costs.

Urban infrastructure improvements included modernizing the city water system and building a new reservoir, paving streets and sidewalks, building new city parks, and bringing in street lighting and a horse-drawn streetcar system. And all this, and more, was done without increasing the city’s debt. One remarkable battles fought by Petersburg’s Black leadership was over teachers in the public schools. Although Petersburg had one of the strongest school systems in the state, its Black schools had only White teachers.

The Black community believed, with good reason, that many of these teachers were underqualified, and had been rejected to teach in White schools. After a pitched battle, Governor Cameron ordered the dismissal of the school board, and its replacement by one that would employ qualified Black teachers. Other cities and towns then followed suit, including Richmond, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Hampton, Danville, Charlottesville, and many smaller towns. Between 1879 and 1883, Black teachers and principals in the state tripled, as did the number of Black schools. Evidence showed that schools with Black teachers showed remarkable improvements in student attendance, scholarships, and behavior. Blacks and whites were thriving and coalescing in harmony.

Meanwhile a coalition of adversaries sought to destroy the system to insure Black people never attain such status and prominence in Virginia with the help of whites dedicated to forge alliances to make the system work for all.

Enviness Over Progress: White Supremacy Destroy Southern Harmony Between Blacks & Whites

Willam Mahones, a civil engineer, politician, railroad executive and former Confederate States Army General led the Readjusters third-party. Mahone wasn't idolized and loved by whites like other Confederate war heroes due to his involvement with bringing together political alliances with blacks vilified as "darkeys" and other worst names imaginable. Mahone had faithfully and fiercely served as the right-hand to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Former Confederate General William MahonesPhoto byMahones Tavern

Most disturbing to Virginia's Bourbons and traditionalists was Mahone's success in uniting poor whites, immigrants, farmers and blacks. Many characterize the Readjuster party as "a drove of hogs" which included the undesirable and ignorant negroes and radical whites. Mahones adversaries accused him of stirring a boiling pot of class war between "responsible men of property, illiterate poor whites and negroes." During Virginia's conservative convention in 1883, the party accepted the Riddleberger debt settlement, and changed their party name from Conservative to Democrat.

But that wasn’t all.

The newfound Democrats(although conservatives in nature) played the race card to the hilt to scare lower-class Whites with the phantom of “Negro rule.” A traditionalist paper, the Richmond State, asserted that the only issue to be settled in the upcoming election was whether Virginia would be “ruled by her own true sons or by the African horde that'd been unified into a mass movement and solidified by a few unnatural Virginians, who were deemed enemies to their state and renegades to their own white race.”

Riots and Murder

Shortly before the election, Author Spannaus writes, "a race riot broke out in Danville, a Black- and Readjuster-controlled city where four Blacks and one White were killed. Whether the clash was spontaneous or provoked is still debated by historians. But, either way, the Democrats sent riders to all corners of the state with lurid accounts of the mayhem, portraying it as the “fruits of Mahoneism” and of “Negro rule.” Most observers agree that the newfound conservative Democrats were able to use the Danville events to swing the election in their favor. The Democrats won about two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the General Assembly, and the Readjuster's control of Virginia was broken and a new(old order) government replaced it!

Glorious Victory! Mahoneism Killed & the State RedeemedPhoto byEncyclopedia Virginia

Newfound Democrats Disenfranchised Blacks and Liberal Whites to Eliminate Their Economic & Political Power

The Old Order Restored for the next two decades, the Democratic Party, acting on behalf of the traditionalist oligarchy and their business interests, devoted itself to restoring the old order, and taking measures to ensure that “Mahoneism” could never emerge again. In 1884 and 1894, legislation was enacted which, as R.H. Pulley says, “gave legislative sanction to electoral fraud by facilitating the stuffing of ballot boxes, the manipulation of the illiterate vote, and the falsification of election returns. These illegal acts reduced and controlled the Black vote, but left the Republican Party powerless as a state-wide force.

Nonetheless, the Democrats had to tread lightly on restricting the franchise, for fear of arousing the “spirit of Mahone.” Former NAACP president Ben Jealous in his new book "Never Forget Our People Were Always Free" eloquently writes, "By denying the vote to so many Blacks and low-income Whites, White supremacists essentially outlawed the kind of multiracial coalition that had beat them in Virginia and was chalking up victories in other states."

Once the turn of the century took place the Democrats felt sufficiently confident to seek repeal of the Reconstruction-era Underwood Constitution. This coincided with the 1890s rise of the myth of the “Lost Cause,” and the spread of the literary movement glorifying the “Old Virginia” mystique, characterized by portrayals of the splendors of colonial Virginia, “willowy ladies, cultivated gentlemen, and loyal slaves. The movement to repeal the Underwood Constitution was well under way. In order to prevent any new Mahone-type movement from arising, the intention from the beginning was to disfranchise both Blacks and poor Whites.

Constitutional Convention: No Whites Shall Experience Being Disenfranchised

When the question arised over whether to hold a new constitutional convention the matter was put to a vote, with the strongest opposition coming from the western, transmontane counties, and the Northern Neck – a once-prosperous area now replaced by poor White and Black small farmers. Pledges were made at the 1900 Democratic Convention that no Whites would be disfranchised again. The 1901-02 constitutional convention dragged on for thirteen months, taking so long because of sectional disagreements over suffrage, and due to well-founded fears that the new constitution would disfranchise poor and illiterate Whites in the mountain regions and elsewhere, along with Black voters. The suffrage article adopted by the work of Carter Glass included the poll tax, the literacy test, and the “understanding” clause—under which a prospective voter must be able to read and explain any section of the new constitution.

Virginia State Congressman Carter GlassPhoto bySenate.Gov

During debate, Glass acknowledged that the fear of negro domination was not the only issue: he explained that the purpose was designed to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State,” as well making it impossible for “unworthy men of our own race . . . to cheat their way into prominence.” In the end, the new constitution was put into effect by proclamation. Its impact was shown in the 'cutting in half' the number of voters participating in the 1904 presidential election as compared to the 1900 election: 264,000 in 1900, reduced to 130,000 in 1904. Black voting declined by an estimated 90% after the 1902 constitution went into effect. The Democratic Party had succeeded in restoring the old Virginia system of rule by the elites, which remained intact for over half a century into the future.

Comparing today's politically-polarized environment with the groundbreaking progress achieved during the 1800s among Blacks and Whites in Virginia, and in the spirit of Martin Luther King's dream of white children and black children coming together, Ben Jealous says in his book; "If men who'd been enslaved could find a common cause with men who fought to keep them enslaved to build a better future(at that time during 1800s) for all their children, we should never lose faith that we can unite for the sake of ours."

Just think: what if politicans and citizens today could forge the same alliance like the blacks and whites done in Virginia in the 1800s--to make the system work for everyone including the poor, middle-working class and everyone human no matter which walk of life a person came from.

America’s biggest challenge is to keep working together in a much better way, keep fighting those attempting to undermine civil liberties and voting rights in this country, grow more independent coalitions to insure every citizen in this country is well represented in every political and economic platfform and treated equally, so we can finally achieve the latter and be what we pledge allegiance to — one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(1)Sources used for this article Ben Jealous Book:https://www.amazon.com/Never-Forget-People-Were-Always/dp/0062961748


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I am a freelance news reporter, investigative journalist, true crime writer and historical researcher. I write about community news, crime, business, real estate, human interest, entertainment & politics. Expect to get the stories that matters most.

Houston, TX

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