Virginia is in the midst of an anniversary that so far it hasn’t recognized. How it chooses to do so – or not do so – may tell us a lot about where we are as a society right now.
I refer to the 120th anniversary of Virginia’s constitution of 1902 that officially disenfranchised most Black Virginians – and quite a few white voters, as well. That constitution set up the legal structure that allowed an oligarchy that we know today as the Byrd Machine to run the state for most of the century that followed. This is not some distant history; we still hear the echoes of this event today.
To tell the story, we have to go back to the Civil War, proof positive that this is a classic Virginia tale. After the Late Unpleasantness, Virginia had to adopt a new constitution to get back into the Union. The convention that drew up that document was a bi-racial assembly, which was enough to condemn it in the eyes of many white Virginians at the time. One of those convention delegates was Joseph Holmes, a former slave who later became a cobbler and a politician, and was murdered on the courthouse steps in Charlotte County, the killers never brought to justice. He was recently recognized with a historical marker. (You can read about that here.) Presiding over the convention was John Underwood, a federal judge who, before the Civil War, had been chased out of Virginia because he advocated for abolition. He, too, is line to belatedly get a historical marker (more on him here.)
Virginia had a brief progressive era in the early 1880s under the Readjuster Party, a coalition of small farmers and former slaves that drew much of its support in the western part of the state. The Readjusters appointed Black office-holders to state government, they abolished the poll tax, abolished the whipping post, funded Black schools – they weren’t so progressive as to support integration in the 1880s – and founded Virginia State University. All that was much too much for many white Virginians. In 1885, a conservative backlash threw the Readjusters out of office, never to be heard from again. Many became Republicans, who then were a distinct minority in a state run by conservative Democrats from east of the Blue Ridge. Until Jason Miyares ousted Mark Herring in November’s election, no sitting attorney general in Virginia had lost reelection since Francis Blair, the Readjuster incumbent from Wythe County who was swept out in that 1885 conservative tide.
The conservative Democrats who now ran Virginia set about dismantling as much of that social progress as they could. This was the beginning of the Jim Crow era. But they still ran into a fundamental problem, at least as they saw it: Virginia’s post-war constitution allowed Black men to vote. That was an anathema. Passing mere laws wasn’t enough. To really fix things, Virginia needed a new constitution. To be fair: Race was not the only animating issue behind the call for a new constitution. It did not help that political corruption was rampant at the time and railroads were considered more powerful than some thought they should be, leading to calls for new ways to regulate them.
In May 1900, Virginia voters approved a referendum for a constitutional convention. That convention gaveled to order June 12, 1901, with Bedford native John Goode (by then a lawyer in Norfolk) presiding. There were two main factions: Reformers wanted a state commission to regulate railroads. Conservatives wanted to rid the electorate of Black voters. Both got what they wanted. The former took the shape of the State Corporation Commission as a powerful fourth branch of state government, an entity we still have today. The latter took the shape of the poll tax and literacy requirements for voting.
It’s worth refreshing our memory with just how blunt Virginia’s leaders were about their intentions. Goode railed against the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that had given former slaves the right to vote. This, he declared, had been not just “a stupendous blunder, but a crime against civilization and Christianity” that was imposed “under the rule of bayonet.” Walter Watson of Nottoway County said the convention’s purpose was “the elimination of the negro from the politics of this state.” The trick was how to do that without violating the U.S. Constitution. The solution was to create requirements that appeared race-neutral but were plainly intended to disenfranchise Black voters. The poll tax would eliminate some, especially since those taxes were due far ahead of the election when most people weren’t thinking about politics. The literacy tests would handle the rest, since the administration and interpretation of those tests would be handled by trusted lieutenants of the segregationist establishment. When someone suggested that these rules might constitute discrimination, Carter Glass of Lynchburg – who went on to become Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the treasury and until 2020 had a building at Harvard University named after him – erupted: “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” The key phrase there is “materially impairing,” because some worried that many poor whites, particularly in Southwest Virginia, would also flunk these literacy tests. Proponents insisted that no white man would lose his vote, but they were wrong. The Readjusters were right: Lots of white voters in Southwest Virginia really did have much in common with Black voters across the state. Both lost their right to vote. Then again, some didn’t think enough white voters were eliminated. Gordon Robertson of Roanoke lamented that “There are thousands upon thousands of white men in our mountains who can neither read nor understand this Constitution, whom these gentlemen are willing to have vote …” He felt the poll taxes and literacy tests weren’t enough.
Typically, new state constitutions must be approved by voters, but it’s hard to get people to vote to disenfranchise themselves, so this constitution was never put to a vote. Instead, the convention simply “proclaimed” it as the new fundamental law of the land on July 10, 1902. Of the 43 delegates who voted against this “proclamation,” 23 were from the western part of the state. A legal challenge failed, effectively ratifying a sort of legal coup by which the conservative Democrats who ran the state rid themselves of half their voters, mostly troublesome ones. In 1900, some 264,208 Virginians voted in the presidential election. Come 1904, only 130,410 did. Virginia entered an oligarchical era that did not end until the the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the election of Linwood Holton in 1969 and a new constitution that took effect in 1971.
None of this is what we were taught as kids. In the state’s official history textbooks that were in circulation from the ’50s into the ’70s, Virginia schoolchildren were taught that the 1902 constitution was a glorious document: “The constitution of 1902 has pleased the people of Virginia so well that today, with certain changes, it remains the supreme law of the state.” Those, of course, would be white people, and not even all of them.
How should Virginia remember all this? Or should we remember this at all?