When I was in school — which in my mind wasn’t that long ago, although sometimes both the mind and calendar can play tricks — I had Virginia history drummed into my head at least four times. Fourth grade, seventh grade, 11th grade, and again in college.
Strangely, I don’t remember any of those history classes going past Appomattox. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the 1957-era textbook — commissioned as a reaction to the civil rights movement that terrified the state’s leadership — was bent on indoctrinating students into a particular way of thinking. Consider this account of the Civil War in my seventh-grade textbook: “President Abraham Lincoln threatened to invade Virginia and use force to interfere with the state’s own affairs.” Well, yes, I suppose that’s true, but those “own affairs” included enslaving nearly one-third of the population. Somehow that point got glossed over. Instead, we were taught that abolitionists “proposed measures in Congress which would have taken away many of the rights of the Southern states and robbed them of their property.”
I am convinced that many of our problems today in understanding that era stem from the fact that a whole generation of us were taught propaganda. The legacy of Harry Byrd and the Byrd Machine still casts a long shadow over the state, long after his statue was carted away from Capitol Square.
That brings me to the unusual historical sign that went up recently in Charlotte County: a 2,400-word account of the history behind the county’s Confederate monument. That’s longer than some of my columns!
In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about how, if Confederate monuments aren’t taken down, they should be “contextualized” — a phrase that many of us haven’t heard until now and probably don’t understand fully. This is what “contextualization” looks like.
This has been called the first such contextualization sign in the state, although the Montgomery Museum put up an “African-American Memory and History Project” exhibit in Christiansburg near the county’s Confederate monument in 2022 to tell the story of slavery and its aftermath in Montgomery County.
Those three signs in Christiansburg are certainly informative, but they’re about a larger history, not the context of the county’s Confederate monument as the one in Charlotte County is. The fact that the one in Charlotte County arose organically in one of the most conservative counties in the state, and was devised by three people with very different backgrounds — a Black teacher and activist, a white historical researcher and a white member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (as well as president of the Charlotte County Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) — ought to be seen as an encouraging model for other localities.
As a lover of history (both the good and the bad and the in-between), I recommend that all those interested in Virginia history should read this sign. You don’t even have to drive to Charlotte County to do so (although I’m sure the county would appreciate the tourism dollars). Here’s what it looks like:
This is the history lesson I never learned in school, both about the Civil War and the post-Civil War period that we somehow never get around to.
Maybe it was a good thing we never got past Chapter 35 of our 48-chapter textbook, because the chapters dealing with the late 1800s and early 1900s leave out a lot of important context and sometimes inject outright lies. I’ve written about some of those before — the Youngkin administration gets credit for insisting Virginia students get taught about the Readjusters, a biracial post-war political party that briefly set the state on a progressive path toward racial reconciliation that was abruptly cut short. It’s the third and fourth panels of this four-panel contextualization sign that I find the most fascinating because I suspect for most people who read this sign, this will be the first time they’ve learned about that era between the end of of the Civil War and 1902 — when white supremacists managed to repeal the state’s post-war constitution and unilaterally declared, without benefit of a referendum, a new constitution that intentionally disenfranchised almost all of Virginia’s Black voters and many of its poor white ones, as well. (The fact that many of those poor white voters were Republican voters in Southwest Virginia was seen as an added benefit for the conservative Democrats who then ruled the state.)
The ‘Constitution Oaks’ of Virginia
One colorful aspect of the Charlotte County sign is the account of the “Constitution Oak” that once stood on the lawn of the courthouse. In 1902, some members of the constitutional convention that adopted Virignia’s new constitution were given oak saplings (it’s unclear whether these went only to those who voted in favor). The representative from Charlotte County planted his sapling near the courthouse, where the tree stood until it died in 1993 and was replaced.
The Constitution Oak in Montgomery County still stands in Christiansburg.
Are there others in Virginia? There’s a Constitution Oak in Warren County but it’s said to commemorate the nation’s constitution. If you know of other Constitution Oaks in Virginia from those 1902 plantings, I’d love to hear about them. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Had any of my teachers managed to make it to Chapter 41, that’s not what we would have learned. Instead, we would have read that “the purpose of the convention [which adopted the new constitution] was to correct certain undesirable parts of the Underwood Constitution of Reconstruction days” without being told that those “certain undesirable parts” were the ones that allowed Black Virginians to vote. We’d have also learned — or should I say “learned” — that “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.” It certainly pleased some people, just not all those disenfranchised. (I should point out that the constitution of 1902 is now gone, replaced by a new state constitution that took effect in 1971, about the time that then-Gov. Linwood Holton was ordering these textbooks be replaced.)
The new sign in Charlotte County does an excellent job of explaining all this history — how many Black Virginians served in state government well past the end of Reconstruction, but were gradually pushed aside by conservative Democrats bent on purging them not just from state government but the voter rolls altogether. The sign includes a quote from one Charlotte County resident who wrote to the Richmond Times saying white voters there wanted the “ignorant, malicious and irresponsible” Black voters disenfranchised. It also says that conservative Democrats promised to put the new constitution to a vote and then reneged on that promise, because who would vote to disenfranchise themselves? The sign also points out that the county’s Confederate monument went up in the midst of all this political turmoil, as white supremacists tightened their grip on state government. Those were also largely white supremacists from the eastern part of the state. More than half of the delegates who voted against the constitution were from the Blue Ridge foothills or further west.
Here’s how effective that disenfranchisement was. In the 1900 presidential election between President William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, Virginia saw 264,208 people vote.
By 1904, only 130,410 votes were counted. More than half the voters had simply disappeared.
William Pendleton, a Republican lawyer from Tazewell, wrote a book call “Political History of Appalachian Virginia” that described the “horror and dread visible on the faces of the illiterate poor white men, who were waiting to take their turn before the inquisition” led by Democratic registrars intent on making sure they couldn’t register to vote, either. “It was still more horrible to see the marks of humiliation and desire that were stamped upon the faces of … men who had been refused registration and who had been robbed of their citizenship.”
Even in some of the overwhelmingly white (and Republican-voting) counties of Southwest Virginia, the number of voters fell precipitously. Pendleton’s Tazewell County was one of the strongest Republican counties in the state. From 1900 to 1904, the number of voters in Tazewell fell from 3,984 to 2,273 and most of those missing voters were ones who had voted Republican. To be true to their political heritage, today’s Republicans in Virginia ought to be the strongest proponents of making the ballot accessible because they were among those who suffered from it being restricted.
My larger point: This contextualization in Charlotte County is about a story a lot bigger than a single Confederate monument. It’s a story about how a powerful elite took control of the state without going through the ballot box and maintained control for more than half a century by keeping the electorate small and disengaged. This sign in Charlotte County ought to be required reading for every student in Virginia — and anyone else who wants to understand the state’s history that we intentionally weren’t taught in school.