Virginia's History of Black Suffrage -- and Disenfranchisement

Nov 4, 2016

Matthew Gibson (l) is Director of Digital Initiatives at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Brendan Wolfe is the Managing Editor of the Encyclopedia Virginia.
Credit Sefe Emokpae

Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Encyclopedia Virginia offers a thorough history of African American suffrage in the Commonwealth.  With fresh charges by Democrats that Republicans are planning to intimidate minority voters in next week’s election, WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae sat down with some of the people behind the resource to learn more about the journey ‘From Freedom to Disenfranchisement.

In just a matter of days millions of people will head to the polls to exercise their right to vote. It’s a right that, up until 50 years ago, was denied for a large swath of the population in Virginia. But it wasn’t always that way. During the period of Reconstruction, things were looking up for the African–American community. Not only were they free, amendments to the constitution now allowed them to take an active role in politics. Brendan Wolfe of Encyclopedia Virginia explains.

BRENDAN WOLFE: The first African Americans to vote legally in Virginia were in 1867 and then they started to be elected in pretty good numbers to the General Assembly in 1869. By the early 1880s, a political party called the Readjusters that included a huge number of African-Americans in Virginia actually controlled all aspects of state government.

But the growth in power, didn’t last very long. During the state’s Constitutional Convention in 1902, the attempt to take away the African-American vote and, in some cases, the poor White vote was institutionalized and put into policy.

WOLFE: The convention's explicit purpose was to figure out how to disenfranchise African-Americans in a way that did not run afoul of the United States Constitution, of the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments. But they wanted to get as many black people disenfranchised as possible. They didn't even pretend to be fair about it.

So, why the change of heart? As Wolfe explains, anxiety and tension among the white community was already at all-time high.

WOLFE: It's such a social upheaval obviously to have people one minute largely enslaved and the next minute exercising the same constitutional rights as the people who a year before had owned them.

And then, in 1883, came an incident in Danville which became a tipping point of sorts. Three days before statewide elections in November, a white man and two black men got into a fight. The fight drew a large crowd, guns were pulled and people died.

WOLFE: White people in Danville and across the state used that incident as a way of whipping up fear against black people and they said that it was the black people who had provoked that fight, that they needed to be literally taught a lesson. That was what the Richmond paper said. So armed men patrolled the streets of Danville in order to prevent African-American people from coming out of their houses onto the street and affectively prevented them from voting.

Armed men were not the only way blacks were prevented from voting. So says Matthew Gibson of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

MATTHEW GIBSON: There was the understanding clause which they would have a poll watcher who would actually test individual voters on their understanding of aspects of the state constitution and if they could answer those to the extent that it would satisfy that poll watcher, and of course that's completely arbitrary, but if they weren't able to answer that question to the extent that the poll watcher said satisfied their means then they would be denied access to the voting booth.

It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that change finally came not just to Virginia, but the nation. Brendan Wolfe.

GIBSON: It really wasn’t until the acts of the Civil Rights Movement that the teeth of those constitutional amendments that were passed in the 1860s actually went into place.

But fast forward to 2016 and some may argue that, with recently-enacted voter ID laws and the fight by Governor Terry McAuliffe to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 former felons in Virginia, the right to vote is still somewhat limited.

GIBSON: I would say that he thinks that it's making good on the 15th amendment to grant these people suffrage. I'm sure there are people who disagree with him and I'm not going to take a side either way but I do think that's his rationale is that the state of Virginia is making good on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

WOLFE: If you take race out of it, you can see this going back to the debates that happened in the early years of the country which is the battle between the idea of ‘as many people as possible should vote and only a select few people should vote.’

The debate aside, come November 8th more people than ever in the history of Virginia will have the right to vote… a responsibility both Gibson and Wolfe say should not be taken for granted.

GIBSON: The right to vote is what undergirds our nation as a democratic nation so without the right to vote we cease to be a democracy.