Certain dates are drummed into our memory: 1492 and 1776 need no further explanation. Neither should 1607 and 1619.
Here, though, is a date that we in Virginia don’t know nearly as well as we should: 1883. That was the year Virginia turned away from what had been a progressive path toward post-war racial reconciliation and embarked on the dark road that led in a very different direction — toward Jim Crow and eventually Massive Resistance.
Virginia might have gone that direction anyway, but the spark that prompted Virginia to make that unfortunate choice came 140 years ago Friday in Danville with an event that has gone down in history as the Danville Massacre.
Let’s back up to set the stage: We often speak of certain types of racial progress as “the first time since Reconstruction” that something as happened, because we were all taught (correctly) that the Reconstruction era saw Black legislators elected for the first time in Virginia and other Southern states — and also lots of Republicans in what had been a land of conservative Democrats. Here’s what we often don’t realize: In Virginia, Reconstruction formally ended when the state was readmitted to the Union in 1870, but what followed was 13 years of reasonably progressive governance (for its time) that also saw unprecedented racial progress.
The dominant struggle in Virginia for much of that time was over how to deal with the state’s debt, much of it from before the war. The payments for that debt were threatening to crowd out new spending priorities, such as the public school system that Virginia was mandated to create as a condition for readmission. I’ll skip over many of the details to get to the key point. Virginia evolved two parties: The Funders — conservative Democrats — believed that paying off that debt was a matter of honor. The Readjusters — Republicans — wanted to “readjust” the state’s debt and pay off only part of it. The Funders generally represented the state’s conservative elite in the eastern part of the state; the Readjusters were a western-based party of small farmers, small businessmen — and Black voters across the state. Think of these as the precursors of the conservative Democrats of the future Byrd Machine and the mountain-valley Republicans, the alignment of politics we knew until the 1970s. The Readjusters may not have been as open-minded as we’d like to think today. Their leader, former Confederate general-turned-railroad baron William Mahone, seemed more interested in the votes of Black Virginians than anything else, but in the context of that times, that made him something of a progressive — and a figure to be reviled by many whites who loathed what they called “Mahoneism.”
The key thing to know is that in 1879 the Readjusters won control of the General Assembly and in 1881 also won the governorship, with William Cameron of Petersburg. With full control of state government, the Readjusters set about making changes — changes that didn’t sit well with many white voters. They refinanced the state’s debt (as promised). They founded what we know today as Virginia State University as a Black counterpart to Virginia Tech. They mandated equal pay for those Black and white teachers. They abolished the poll tax and the whipping post. They appointed Black office-holders (admittedly, to low-level offices).
These changes weren’t limited to state government. In 1882, the Readjusters won eight of the 12 seats on the Danville City Council, with four white candidates and four Black ones. That Readjuster-led council integrated Danville’s police force, a radical act for the time.
“The rise of the Readjusters caused significant anxiety among many white Virginians,” Encyclopedia Virginia writes. “White anxiety was not entirely political, however. Many whites in Danville found it socially challenging to witness African Americans, many of whom had been enslaved twenty years earlier, exercising their rights as U.S. citizens by holding office, selling goods in the open-air markets, or passing a white person on the street without showing deference.”
1883 was an election year for the entire General Assembly, just as 2023 is. “Partisan feeling was running especially high,” Encyclopedia Virginia writes. Political rivals took to going about armed. That summer nearly 100 people were indicted on charges of carrying concealed weapons.
Things came to a boil in October when 28 businessmen — all white — published a broadside that condemned “the injustice and humiliation to which our white people have been subjected and are daily undergoing by the domination and misrule of the radical or negro party.” Among their complaints: Four of Danville’s nine police officers were Black — “something before that time unknown to the history of the town” — and 20 of the 24 market stalls had been leased to Black merchants and were “now the scene of filth, stench, crowds of loitering and idle negroes, drunkenness, obscene language, and petit thieves.” Another complaint: Black women were refusing to give way to white women on the sidewalks.
The solution, the publication said, was simple: Vote out the Readjusters.
The chairman of the Pittsylvania County Readjuster Party was having none of it. On the Friday before the election, William Sims arranged to speak downtown, outside the same building where local Democrats were meeting. According to an investigation led by white leaders unsympathetic to the Readjuster cause, a crowd of 500 Black men gathered to hear Sims. Sims, who was white, began by reading the names of the 28 people who had signed what had become known as “The Danville Circular” and called them liars. He then proceeded to read the document aloud, commenting as he went along: “Another lie.” He concluded by declaring that the circular contained 45 lies, reread the list of signatories and declared that they weren’t just liars, they were “liars, scoundrels and cowards.”
“Can anything be imagined better calculated to bring on a row?” wrote Powhatan Bouldin, editor of the Danville Times.
And it did.
The events of the next day, Nov. 3, are in dispute. What’s generally agreed upon is that that afternoon, a white man named Charles Noel (or Noell) was walking down Main Street when he passed by two Black men and tripped over the foot of one of them. Noel confronted the man — Henderson “Hense” Lawson — and racial epithets flew. Noel struck Lawson. Lawson and his companion, Davis Lewellyn, hit back. Noel tumbled off the sidewalk. He left and came back with two friends, George Lea and W.R. Taylor.
Here’s how Encyclopedia Virginia tells the story:
When they found Lawson and Lewellyn, Noel — again by his own admission — struck Lawson. As a crowd of African Americans began to form around the combatants, Lea and Taylor, according to Noel, “drew their pistols and told them to stand back and allow fair play.” According to Lawson, Lea used a racial epithet in threatening to kill all of the Black bystanders.
At this point, a nearby Black police officer, Robert J. Adams, was summoned to separate the combatants. According to his later testimony, he had all but ended the fight when George Adams, a Black man unrelated to the police officer, “snatched Lea off the sidewalk down in the gutter” in an attempt to take his pistol away. Lea won the struggle, and as he “raised out of the gutter he shot,” presumably at his attacker. He missed.
The policeman called for reinforcements and a Black and a white officer arrived. In the meantime, the crowd of bystanders, most of them African Americans who had wandered over from the city market, began to grow much larger.
By now, the crowd was about 100 strong, swelled by local Democrats who had been meeting with Congressman George Cabell to prepare a response to Sims’ oratory the night before.
Once more, Encyclopedia Virginia:
While about twenty white men stood by, some with pistols raised, African Americans demanded that Lea be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. The white police officer, Charles Freeman, urged them to go home, but they refused. Two things then happened at once. Walter Holland, a white Democrat, stepped off the sidewalk toward one of the policemen. And several of the white men, including Lea, raised their pistols and fired.
Holland and three Black men — Terry Smith, Edward Davis and another whose name isn’t recorded — lay dead. A fourth Black man whose name is lost to history was mortally wounded.
The crowd fled, and white men set off to hunt down Black men. Officer Adams’ brother, Charles, had nothing to do with the melee but came out of a store to calm his horse. He was shot and wounded. The white crowd fired at him again and he ran away, bleeding. “When the white men caught up with him, they delivered a beating and might have killed him were it not for the intervention of Congressman Cabell,” Encyclopedia Virginia writes.
The town’s white militia was called out. White residents organized their own armed patrols — against the advice of the city’s mayor — and kept their Black neighbors from leaving their homes, which meant they couldn’t vote. Democrats spread the news of the violence in Danville and blamed it on the Readjusters and their civil rights policies. “The negroes have precipitated the bloody issue, and the whites have been forced to meet it with arms in their hands,” claimed the Lynchburg News. On Nov. 6, Democrats swept the state elections. A 58-seat Readjuster majority in the House became a 63-seat Democratic majority. A 23-seat Readjuster majority in the Senate became a 25-seat Democratic majority.
That was effectively the end of the Readjusters. Two years later, Democrat Fitzhugh Lee won the governorship. Within a decade, there was just one Republican (as Readjusters had become by then) in the 40-member state Senate and just three in the 100-member House of Delegates. The conservative Democrats who ruled Virginia went about setting up all the structures of Jim Crow. They ran on platforms unabashedly in favor of white supremacy (the Danville Times declared the 1889 governor’s race “a great battle for the supremacy of the white race”). They unilaterally imposed a new constitution in 1902 that disenfranchised most Black voters (and a lot of white ones, too). They restored the poll tax, and they eventually turned into the Byrd Machine, which did all it could to resist the U.S. Supreme Court when it ordered schools desegregated in the 1950s. Not until Republican Linwood Holton’s election as governor in 1969 did Virginia return to the path that the Readjusters had it on up until 1883.
We’re getting ahead of the story, though. What happened in Danville 140 years ago reverberated well beyond Virginia. While the state’s newspapers blamed the riot on Black residents, Northern newspapers saw it just the opposite. The Chicago Tribune was the first to call the event “the Danville Massacre.” The New York Times headlined its story: “Inoffensive Negroes Shot Down in Great Numbers by Inflamed Whites.”
Danville convened an investigation — called The Committee of 40, of whom 39 were white — that concluded that whites were blameless in the matter and that Black residents had become “rude, insolent and intolerant to the white citizens of the town,” thus justifying the violence.
The federal government investigated, too. The U.S. Senate then was controlled by Republicans; an inquiry by a Senate committee that heard from more than 160 witnesses reached just the opposite conclusion. That, of course, had no effect whatsoever.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch wrote that the massacre was unfortunate but necessary. “These negroes [in Danville] had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town. They have been taught a lesson — a dear lesson, it is true … but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia.”
For decades after, white authorities in Danville found ways to justify the massacre. A promotional booklet in 1885 declared that “Another important result of the Riot was the complete change which at once took place in the deportment of the negroes towards their white neighbors. Those who had formerly been most insolent in their conduct now became polite and respectful, ready to yield all reasonable deference to their natural superiors, and to resume, contentedly, their own legitimate position in the social scale.” Even a 1929 account of the event was framed as the “Intolerable Days When Republican Coalition Brought Negro Domination.” All this formed part of the historical backdrop to Danville’s 1963 “Bloody Monday,” which Cardinal’s Grace Mamon documented this summer on its 60th anniversary.
When I was growing up, I took Virginia history three times — once in elementary school, once in what we now call middle school, another time in college. Somehow none of those classes managed to mention this part of Virginia history. I wonder why?
You can find a longer account of the Danville Massacre on Encyclopedia Virginia.
You can find a timeline of the events on the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History website.
Don’t confuse the Danville Massacre of 1883 with Danville’s Bloody Monday of 1963. Earlier this year, we published a report on that event.
In this week’s West of the Capital:
Every Friday I send out a free newsletter about politics in the state, from a western perspective. Sign up for that and our other free newsletters. This week I’ll look at:
- An easy way to follow the election returns on Tuesday night
- Should Rep. Abigail Spanberger seek re-election before she runs for Congress?
- Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County, recommends a song, so I also recommend three of my favorite election songs.