There was another time — 150 years ago — when African Americans were fully represented in Richmond and had an equal hand in shaping state government.
In April 1868, Virginia produced a new constitution as part of its efforts to be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War. The document was drafted by a group of 104 delegates elected from around the state, including 24 black men.
Many of those black delegates had been born into slavery, and now they were convening in Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol and invoking Jefferson’s words to claim their rights as citizens. Until recently, little was known about those men (there were no women involved; that took even longer). Their work was reviled at the time and quickly repudiated.
“It’s no wonder that backward-looking white people were appalled at how fast things were changing — their property was now writing them a constitution,” historian Brent Tarter said.
Tarter, who is semiretired from the Library of Virginia, has studied Virginia history for a half century and knew little about that Reconstruction period. But for the past few years, he’s been discovering one surprise after another, all part of an effort in the state Capitol to finally pay some respect to a remarkable set of people and circumstances.
“As the great-granddaughter of slaves, I was incredibly proud” to learn of that history, said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who has led efforts to install memorials to the event around the Capitol. “But I was sort of disappointed that I didn’t learn about it until I was an adult, and even then I had to proactively look for it.”
It’s odd, because Virginia is a place that loves firsts. And there are many in this tale to be proud of. Followed, unfortunately, by crushing shame. But one thing at a time.
As the Civil War stumbled to an end, black residents of Norfolk saw what was coming. About a thousand black men formed the Colored Monitor Union Club less than a week before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in April 1865.
“I believe that was almost certainly the first black political organization in the country,” Tarter said.
Norfolk had been occupied by federal troops since 1862, becoming a refuge for black people seeking freedom and an important hub on the Underground Railroad. Now that liberty was at hand, the members of the Union Club weren’t about to sit and wait for somebody to help them. They knew what they wanted: the vote.
Or, as the Club put it in a nationally distributed manifesto, “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color.”
On May 25, 1865, hundreds of black men showed up at Norfolk polling places for local elections. Most were turned away, but federal poll workers in one precinct allowed them to cast ballots.
Some historians think that was the first instance of blacks voting in the South. Even in the North, most places didn’t allow blacks to vote; the 15th Amendment extending suffrage to all males was still five years away.
When Virginia had to select delegates for a constitutional convention in 1867 to create a new government, black residents turned out in force. Some whites were ineligible to vote under federal law because of their role in the Confederacy; other whites refused to participate in what they saw as a corrupt process. But roughly 90 percent of black males cast ballots in many locations.
The delegates convened in the old House chamber of the Capitol in Richmond, the same room where Aaron Burr was tried for treason and where Lee accepted command of Confederate forces. A contemporary engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows the hall filled with delegates — black, white, some identified as “mulatto.” Black spectators line the galleries overlooking the chamber.
Among the delegates was a man named John Brown, a former slave from Southampton County, which a generation before had been home to the bloody Nat Turner rebellion. His wife and daughter were sold before the war, and he never saw them again. As he ran for the constitutional convention, he circulated a ballot with the reminder: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He defeated two white opponents.
Fellow delegate Peter J. Carter was born on the Eastern Shore, the same part of the state that produced today’s Gov. Ralph Northam (D), and escaped slavery to join the Union Army. A powerful public speaker, Carter was influential in Republican politics for two decades. He chaired the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention of 1880 and served for eight years in the General Assembly.
Thomas Bayne was born into slavery in Norfolk under the name Nixon, but escaped to New England and re-christened himself. He became a dentist and returned to Norfolk in spring 1865, where he became the founding president of the Colored Monitor Union Club.
They were joined not just by Northerners who had come down following the war, but also by prominent white Virginians who had always opposed slavery.
Known as the Underwood Constitution for the radical Republican who oversaw the convention, the document they produced was one of the most dramatic leaps forward in governance since the work of James Madison. It extended the vote to all males, white and black; set up a free system of schools for all races; and established elective democracy at all levels of government in Virginia. For about the next 20 years, the state’s legislature looked like the (male half of the) state.
But as Reconstruction petered out and the white power structure reassembled itself, those gains evaporated. Poll taxes in the mid-1870s began to shut out black and poor white voters alike. Then, in 1902, the state produced a new constitution that set up a system of taxes and tests that effectively disenfranchised 90 percent of the remaining black voters and almost half of white voters.
“Fewer Virginians voted in the first half of the 20th century than any other place in the world that had elections,” Tarter said.
It took the civil rights movement and another constitution in 1971 to undo that work. But it’s taken until today for many of those gains to be slowly restored.
Bit by bit, McClellan, Tarter and other historians and lawmakers are highlighting the names and deeds of those early African American pathfinders. They have commemorated the delegates and senators on marble tablets in the Capitol and posted their biographies online.
This year McClellan — who heads the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission — helped unveil an informational display about the constitutional convention near the Capitol visitors center. Even the tour guides have learned about the period.
“It has the advantage of being fresh and new. Something to surprise people,” said Mark Greenough, a longtime supervisor of Capitol tour guides. “It’s a powerful story. Just because it hasn’t received as much attention in the past doesn’t make it any less powerful.”
The power comes not just from reviving the names of those long-forgotten figures, Tarter said, but from remembering what they fought for.
“They knew about liberty and they knew about not having it,” he said, “and they knew that the vote was the most important tool for protecting that liberty.”
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