The history of African American disenfranchisement and exclusion in Virginia is a lengthy one. This blog post is meant to serve as an introduction and cannot cover every injustice or every individual who strove to rectify them. This is part of an ongoing blog series titled Unfinished Business that explores the history of voting rights beyond Woman’s Suffrage. Be sure to visit the Unfinished Business online exhibit.
CONTENT WARNING: Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; religion; sex; and sexual orientation and gender identity.
Before Virginia became one of the earliest states in the new United States of America, before it even had written an official state constitution, it already had rules on the book that excluded a large portion of its population from voting. As a colony, Virginia based many of its governmental structures on those of England, including the decisions of who should be able to vote. It was thought that only those with an economic interest in the society (propertied white men) would have any need or desire to exercise the franchise. This was so taken for granted that the rules that set down the requirements for voting referred to “persons” or “freemen” who owned property, not specifying any other characteristics regarding the person.
While it is unlikely that a woman or a free person of color (enslaved individuals, being considered property could not own property themselves) would have been able to use this lack of clarity in order to vote, the House of Burgesses later created a separate act that specifically excluded them. In 1723, “An Act directing the trial of Slaves, committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free” section XXIII, the shortest section in a long litany curtailing the rights of those who white men felt were inferior, reads simply “And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, shall hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.” When Virginia adopted its first state constitution in 1776, “[t]he right to vote for members of the assembly remained unchanged from the colonial laws previously in force.”
After the Civil War, the passage of the 14th Amendment nominally declared that every person born on American soil was an American citizen (as we will discuss in a future blog post, Native Americans were not included, and did not gain citizenship until 1920) and the 15th Amendment ruled that a citizen’s vote could not be restricted “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The understanding of “citizenship” at the time however did not apply equally to women. Many white female suffragists resented the fact that Black male voters gained the right to vote before them. Even if women had been considered equal citizens under the 14th Amendment, the 15th made no mention of restrictions based on gender.
Although some men in Norfolk tried to vote as early as May 1865, the first time Virginia counted the votes of Black men was the Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868 while under the military rule of the Union Army.
The results included the election of 24 Black members to the Convention. The new constitution, known as the Underwood Constitution, was a pre-requisite for Virginia regaining its U. S. Congressional seats. Starting in 1869, Black men began to be elected to the General Assembly.
Black men were no longer excluded from voting, but disenfranchisement, the act of blocking a legal right to vote, began almost immediately. In 1876 the state constitution was amended to require the payment of a poll tax in order to vote. At the same time, a separate amendment also barred from voting men who had been convicted of petty crimes. Many of the Black members of the General Assembly were members of the Readjuster Party, who among other progressive platforms, fought to remove the poll tax in 1882.
However, the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention was called as an (largely successful) attempt to reinstate white supremacist rule in Virginia. The 1902 Constitution re-implemented the poll tax, but the poll tax blocked the votes not just of Black men but of many poor white men as well so other measures were required. Not only did the poll tax have to be paid before Election Day, it was cumulative up to three years. If you were unable to pay the tax one year but wanted to vote the next year, you now owed twice the amount. Even if you had the funds and wished to pay it, there was generally no incentive for tax collectors to accept the funds and so it became hard for many Black men to find a way to legitimately pay. Virginia passed several other measures in order to restore the rights of those white men while continuing to block the votes of Black men. These included the “blank paper law” (which relied on a citizen being able to read and write without assistance, similar to a literacy test in other states), “white primaries,” and grandfather clauses in addition to restrictions based on criminal records, and poll taxes.
Literacy tests were implemented with the excuse that a voter needed to be educated enough to understand the importance of their vote. There was no enforced literacy test in Virginia.
In some states registrars could ask simple questions of white men while asking harder ones of Black men, such as requesting them to read and/or explain a random portion of the state Constitution. Virginia implemented what was referred to as the “blank paper law” requiring those who wished to register be given a blank piece of paper (instead of a form) and write down ten required data items from memory. This had to be done without any assistance and could be rejected for spurious reasons.
Grandfather clauses, a term we now use in other contexts, originated in connection to voting as well. Many Southern states, including Virginia, allowed men whose fathers and grandfathers had been eligible to vote prior to the Civil War to bypass such restrictions as the poll tax and literacy test. While this helped many white men, it did not apply to those men whose fathers and grandfathers had been enslaved. Such restrictions adhered to the letter of the law regarding the 15th Amendment’s provisions against restrictions based on race and/or color while having the same de facto result.
Many Southern states also introduced “white primaries.” Many states prohibited Black men from voting in primaries held to determine the candidates from each party that would run for election, making sure that only those candidates supported by the white establishment made it onto the ballot. In many states this was allowed because political parties rather than the government paid for and ran the primaries. Virginia did not have a state-wide white primary, but they were used in some instances to exclude particular subsets of the electorate.
All these measures were in place when, in 1920, Black women nominally gained the right to vote alongside white women with the addition of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. When Black women went to register for the first time, they were discriminated against and disenfranchised. In fact, many white men in Virginia and elsewhere were long hesitant to give women the right to vote fearing that the increase in Black voters would upset white supremacist rule once again. So adamant were they in these fears that many white suffragists, as much a product of their racist society as their white male counterparts, went out of their way to assure those in power that Black women would not be a threat since all the restrictions already heaped upon Black men would surely apply to them as well. All Americans did not gain the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, as many of these racist restrictions continued on for decades, and some linger still.