The Readjusters are finally going to get their due.
Some 138 years after they were voted out of office, this short-lived but consequential party will finally make its way into the state’s official history lessons.
This may be one of the most important (and until now overlooked) changes to the new history and social standards of learning that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is proposing.
Being Virginians, we seem to spend as much time arguing about the past as we do the future, and these new history standards are a classic example. To say that there’s been much controversy over them would be a mild understatement. By law, the standards are revised every seven years. The current revisions began under the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam and are still underway under Youngkin. When now-departed Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow rolled out the administration’s revisions last year, they were met with a long list of complaints that accused the administration of political bias.
“The revision, which critics described as a whitewash of history, triggered scathing pushback from Virginians,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. “Youngkin expressed disappointment in the document, admitting ‘omissions and mistakes.’ The state Board of Education, with a majority appointed by Youngkin, in November rejected the first revision by the Youngkin administration.” For example, the name of Martin Luther King Jr. “was removed from the elementary school standards,” the Virginia Mercury reports. Balow is now gone, and King is back in (I don’t know if those two things are related), but complaints remain.
The Virginia Board of Education has been holding hearings across the state; Monday the board will be in Abingdon, Tuesday in Farmville. Labor activists say that the role of organized labor in American history has been minimized. Others contend the standards still don’t go far enough to recognize the impact of slavery on modern-day American society.
I am not equipped to adjudicate these concerns. I can, though, point to one thing that the Youngkin administration has added that hasn’t been in the standards before: discussion of the Readjuster Party.
This is kind of a big deal.
First, some background. I wrote recently that I was bewildered by the national controversy over the Advanced Placement African American History course that has drawn the ire of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, because when I was in school in the ’60s and ’70s we learned no Black history. I showed off my old seventh-grade history textbook, in which there were just two brief mentions of Black Virginians after Reconstruction. I then proceeded to list some of the things about Virginia history that I wasn’t taught in school, but which I’d managed to learn on my own. That column drew praise from some of the state’s most prominent Black politicians — both Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, tweeted favorably about it. Then on Saturday morning I got an unexpected email from Youngkin’s secretary of education, Aimee Guidera, asking if we could talk. When we finally connected later that day (yes, your public officials work on weekends), she told me she was so impressed by my column that she had sent it to her staff to have them check my suggestions against what was in the proposed history standards. A few days later, she sent me a report that went through my suggestions point by point. That was certainly not what I was expecting.
To be fair, some of my suggestions are admittedly obscure. For instance, I mentioned Roger Arliner Young, a Clifton Forge native who became the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in zoology. Young’s not in the state history standards, but I’m not surprised, nor particularly critical. Even folks in Clifton Forge were unaware of Young until recently; her family moved away when she was a child. Clifton Forge has embraced her anyway, and there’s now a state historical marker about her in front of town hall.
However, the thing that surprised me most is that the Youngkin administration is adding mention of the Readjuster Party to the state’s standards.
Gather around: Let’s all learn some history.
After Reconstruction, one of the major issues in Virginia was the state’s debt, which had piled up during the Civil War and its aftermath. By 1871, Virginia owed $45.6 million, the equivalent of $1.1 billion today, according to the Inflation Calculator. Needless to say, that’s a lot of money. “The size of the debt was so large and the rate of interest so high that payment of the interest required more than half the annual revenue,” Encyclopedia Virginia says. Meanwhile, the state had a new expense to pay — a public school system. Here’s something we aren’t often told: One of the requirements for the former Confederate states to be readmitted to the Union was that they establish public school systems. Northerners felt one of the secondary causes of the Civil War — slavery was obviously the primary cause — was that too many Southerners were uneducated. They felt that the plantation class essentially conned illiterate white Southerners into supporting their cause, so the way to make sure that didn’t happen again was to require the Southern states to set up public school systems.
Schools, though, cost money. Through the 1870s, Virginia — squeezed by crushing debt on one side and new obligations on the other — ran “large budget deficits,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia. There also arose a long-running debate: Should the state continue to pay off that debt, or should the state repudiate all or part of it? The debate was so fierce that two different political parties arose: The Funders wanted the debt paid in full, the Readjusters were, as their name implies, in favor of readjusting the debt.
The political poles were different then: The Funders were primarily Democrats — conservative ones, because that’s all there were then. The Readjusters were primarily Republicans, which, at the time, meant they were to the left of the Democrats. In time, the parties adopted their national names but for a while, they simply went by Funders and Readjusters.
While debt was the animating issue, the two parties also had very different ideas about how society in post-war Virginia should look. I’m simplifying things here to make a point but generally speaking, the Funders represented the state’s business and political establishment, the old planter class. That’s not surprising; they were also the ones to whom a lot of that debt was owed. The Readjusters were primarily the party of small farmers, small business owners and — most significantly — newly freed Black Virginians. They were Virginia’s first biracial party, which is why their story is significant.
The Funders felt very strongly about funding the debt, not so much about schools. State Sen. John Daniels of Lynchburg declared that it “were better to burn the schools … than sustain them on money taken by force” from bondholders. The Readjusters cared a lot more about schools than some rich guy’s bonds. There were also distinct regional differences between the two parties: The Funders were dominant in eastern Virginia, the Readjusters more popular in western Virginia. That meant there was an alliance that would be unthinkable in today’s politics, with primarily white voters in Southwest Virginia voting on the same side as Black Virginians. Both saw themselves as being the have-nots, with the Funders being the haves.
In 1879, Virginia saw something of a political earthquake when the Readjusters won control of the General Assembly. Two years later, in 1881, they elected a Readjuster governor, William Cameron. They readjusted the debt, as they’d pledged to do, and set about making a lot of social reforms. They doubled funding for public schools. They abolished the poll tax and the whipping post. They founded what became Virginia State University, the first public college for training Black teachers anywhere in the South. They turned chronic deficits into surpluses.
For this, their political reward was to be voted out of office, never to return. White Virginians reacted poorly to the Readjusters appointing Black officeholders to state government (although none of them were particularly high-ranking). Still, with the poll tax gone, more people could vote, and Danville voters elected a Black majority town council and hired Black police officers. This was much too much for some white voters. “The emerging egalitarian thinking among the party’s leaders appealed to farmers and working-class people of both races, which alienated many white voters and political leaders who opposed the participation of poor men and Black men in politics,” Encyclopedia Virginia says. “That raised fears of racial equality, or so-called Black domination, which opponents of the Readjusters seized on to regain control of the General Assembly.” It also did not help that the Readjuster leader, former Confederate Gen. William Mahone, was considered fantastically corrupt. He was a railroad baron, and railroad construction then was often synonymous with public corruption. The Funders reorganized themselves as Democrats, agreed to accept the debt readjustment “in order to draw white voters away from the Readjusters,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia, “and they prepared to campaign against the Readjusters on the issue of white supremacy.” That proved to be a winning issue.
With Funders-turned-Democrats back in control of state government, they proceed to set in motion a steady restriction of rights that eventually led to formalized Jim Crow, and to the infamous 1902 state constitution that intentionally disenfranchised about half of Virginia’s voters, primarily Black voters and whites in Southwest Virginia. In other words, the people who had been most likely to vote for the Readjusters. The poll tax, abolished by the Readjusters, came back in 1904 and was used for most of the 20th century to restrict the electorate. It didn’t come to an end until 1966.
The point is: Thanks to the Readjusters, for a brief time in the 1880s Virginia was on a different path, a path toward a multiracial society. Historian Virginius Dabney, author of the classic “Virginia: The New Dominion,” wrote that in the 1880s there was some tolerance for integration. Schools were segregated but other aspects of society were not, and some Northern visitors reported that Virginia had a more open society than they did. “At that time, Virginia blacks rode on trains and streetcars in the same manner as the whites, with no segregation,” Dabney wrote. It was not until after that conservative electoral uprising in 1885 — the one that threw out the Readjusters — that calls for formal segregation became more frequent. “By the early nineties, demands were beginning to be heard that the races be separated, and that the blacks be almost completely disenfranchised,” Dabney wrote. Jim Crow was not foreordained; it was a deliberate choice that Virginians made. They had another choice: They had the Readjusters.
We weren’t taught any of this when I was in school. On the contrary, we were told only that the Readjusters “included Radicals, carpetbaggers, Negroes” — all presumably bad things — and that while the Readjusters may have done a few good things, Virginians were “afraid [Mahone] would turn the Readjuster Party over to the Republicans.” (That was definitely considered a bad thing by the authors of my history book, which was commissioned by segregationist Democrats of the Byrd Machine.) My seventh-grade history book made no mention of the Readjusters doing away with the poll tax, expanding the electorate or trying to institute a multiracial society. My seventh-grade history book also came out during Massive Resistance and remained in place in some Virginia schools into the late 1970s. It’s only because I’m something of a history nerd that I’ve come to learn about the Readjusters and understand how significant their era was — and how significant the state’s turn away from the Readjusters was. We can never know for sure how things would have turned out if we’d made different choices but we know that after the Readjusters were voted out of office, Virginia set itself on a straight line that led to segregation and Massive Resistance. If the Readjusters had stayed in office, how might things have evolved?
My generation was never asked that question because we weren’t told the basic facts in the first place. The Youngkin administration’s revised history standards, though, add in discussion of the Readjusters for the first time. Under the new standards, 11th graders will be expected to study the post-Reconstruction era by “evaluating the role of the biracial Readjuster Party,” specifically its role in education and creating new employment opportunities for Black Virginians of that era. The new standards also make mention, for the first time, of John Mercer Langston, who was the state’s first Black congressman — elected in 1888, a few years after the Readjusters were voted out of power, which suggests their influence lingered a while longer in some places. (I wrote about him in a previous column. Also, Langston was added in by the revisions set in motion during the Northam administration, although the Readjusters are something the Youngkin team has added.)
“Everybody says we’ve whitewashed history but the opposite is true,” Guidera says. “We’ve added more history in. We’ve added in that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. Before it was mentioned as one of many things.”
I can’t speak to the other proposed revisions. Maybe they’re still insufficient, maybe they’re not, I don’t know. I went to the Roanoke hearing on Thursday and heard lots of speakers complain about subjects, events and people (mostly people of color) that they felt were wrongly minimized or left out entirely. Others said that too much was being put in, that teachers would never be able to get to all of it — that for everything added something should come out. I can appreciate that. When I was in school, no teacher ever got to the end of the book in a single school year. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, spoke at the labor rally beforehand: “We won’t stand idly by while Virginia’s history is cherrypicked to satisfy a political agenda,” he said. “By erasing history we are doing our students an injustice and preventing them from having a holistic understanding of the world they live in.” The concept of “erasing history” is now a phrase used by both left and right, just referring to different things. All I know is that we’ve already had our history erased, because previous generations (including mine) weren’t taught about the Readjusters and what could have been.
I’ll give myself an “I” for incomplete for not fully knowing how the overall revisions stack up, but for including the Readjusters, I’ll give Youngkin an A.