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It is often assumed that after Congressional Reconstruction in Virginia ended in 1870, no Black men won election to political office in the state until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That is far from the case, however. African American men were elected to the Virginia General Assembly until the 1890s, and a few Black men continued to win local offices into the twentieth century.

Virtually all of these men have been ignored in most Virginia history books other than works by such pioneering Black scholars as Alrutheus A. Taylor (The Negro in the Reconstruction of Virginia, 1926) and Luther P. Jackson (Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1945). Not only were the stories of these legislators hidden and suppressed for decades; they were hidden and suppressed even in their own time. In 1871, the collection of portraits of members of the House of Delegates included photographs of thirteen Black delegates segregated from the white delegates on the bottom row. Soon thereafter, photographs of Black delegates were excluded entirely, leaving the impression that the General Assembly was again, as it had been since 1619, all white.

Luther Porter Jackson taught at Virginia State College and documented the history of Black Virginians in several books, including Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895, that identified numerous post-Civil War state and local office holders. Library of Virginia.

1871-1872 Virginia Legislative Portrait

Virginia Legislature Photograph Collection, Visual Studies, Library of Virginia.

Part of the mission of the Library of Virginia’s ongoing Dictionary of Virginia Biography project has been to document all the Black members of the Virginia General Assembly during the nineteenth century. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and with the assistance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, the Library of Virginia and Virginia Humanities have published biographies of these African American legislators that are available online at Encyclopedia Virginia. The biographies can also be reached through the Commission’s website and through the Dictionary of Virginia Biography‘s online index.

1860 Census of the Enslaved Population

This map shows the distribution of Virginia's enslaved population at the time of the 1860 census. Virginia had the nation's highest population of enslaved African Americans, nearly 500,000, the majority of whom lived east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Henry S. Graham, Map of Virginia: Showing the Distribution of its slave Population from the Census of 1860 (1861). Library of Virginia.

Between 1869 and 1890, ninety-two African American men sat in one of the two houses of Virginia’s General Assembly. Geographically, the legislators came from areas of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Southside Virginia, the region south of the James and Appomattox Rivers to the North Carolina border, was especially well represented, reflecting the large pre-Civil War populations of enslaved persons. Fifteen sat in both legislative bodies, while Frank Moss of Buckingham County served in both houses of the General Assembly and in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. Nineteen members of the House of Delegates won reelection to more than one term, including Mecklenburg County’s Ross Hamilton, who won election to seven consecutive terms (1870–1883).

Almost two-thirds of the assemblymen were born into slavery, several of whom escaped to northern states and returned to Virginia after the war, while others were emancipated or purchased their freedom. At least eight legislators were born outside of Virginia. Some men who had experienced freedom prior to the Civil War served in the United States Colored Troops. More than 90 percent of the Black legislators were literate at a time when more than a third of Virginians over age ten were unable to read.

Born enslaved in Mecklenburg County, Ross Hamilton (ca. 1843–1901) had one of the longest legislative careers of any African American in nineteenth-century Virginia. Photograph in Luther P. Jackson, Negro Office-Holders in Virginia (1945).

These members of the General Assembly had a diverse range of occupations. The majority came from the skilled trades such as barbers, carpenters, and blacksmiths, and the professional class, including ministers, attorneys, and teachers. Ninety percent of legislators owned real estate, including some men who acquired substantial amounts of property, such as Norfolk County delegate Richard Gault Leslie Paige. Paige escaped slavery and settled in Boston before returning to Norfolk, where he qualified to practice law and accumulated property valued at more than $6,500 at the time of his death. Some legislators also held local offices as city councilmen, aldermen, justices of the peace, and constables, as well as federal patronage jobs as customs house officials, lighthouse keepers, and local postmasters.

Several families could boast of multiple officeholders. The Nortons—brothers Frederick, Daniel, and Robert—represented the city of Williamsburg and surrounding counties. Phillip S. Bolling represented Buckingham and Cumberland Counties in the House of Delegates from 1883 to 1885, and was succeeded by his father Samuel P. Bolling for the next term. Their similar names caused enough confusion that the younger Bolling’s service has generally been overlooked. The remarkable Hodges family was even more impressive. Charles E. Hodges and his nephew John Quincy Hodges represented Norfolk County and Princess Anne County, respectively, in the House of Delegates during the same term. Charles Hodges’s older brother Willis A. Hodges served in the convention called to rewrite the state’s constitution after the Civil War, while another older brother and antislavery activist William Johnson Hodges became an important political leader.

The legislative priorities for Black delegates provide a window into the needs of their constituents, Black and white, but also the obstacles that newly-freed people encountered after the abolition of slavery. Legislators introduced bills to establish fraternal organizations to provide relief and burial benefits for the indigent; to incorporate cemetery and memorial companies; to improve roads and bridges; and to establish a maximum ten-hour day for farm laborers with a minimum wage of $1.00 a day.

Black legislators opposed efforts by white men to impose racial segregation in all areas of public life, such as railroads, hospitals, and educational institutions. Similarly, the legislators made proposals to integrate juries; reduce lengthy mandatory prison terms for minor offenses; and amend pre-Civil War laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Reflecting the precarious existence Black Virginians faced in a post-slavery world, Rufus S. Jones, who represented Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties, presented a resolution to define the “authority of sheriffs and constables in making arrests, and preventing said officers from striking, shooting or abusing persons whom they arrest, except in self-defence.” Most of the Black legislators’ proposals, however, failed to win enough votes from white majorities in the assembly to pass.

Dinwiddie County delegate Alfred W. Harris (1853–1920) introduced the legislation in 1882 that created Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, the state's first public college for Black men and women. It provided collegiate classes as well as teacher training until white supremacists in the assembly restricted the school's academic offerings and renamed it the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. Photograph in Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute Catalogue, 1908–1909, Library of Virginia.

Among the early victories for Black Virginians, African American legislators and their radical white allies voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as establish the state’s first public school system. Early in the 1880s, the biracial Readjuster Party passed landmark legislation reducing the amount of principal and the rate of interest of the state’s prewar debt, which replenished the state treasury and increased funding for the public schools. Black legislators led the effort to create Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), the state’s first four-year public college for African American students. They also helped expand Central Lunatic Asylum, the first such state institution for African Americans, repeal the poll tax, and at last abolish the whipping post.

The short-lived Readjuster Party proved to be the high-water mark for Black legislators in the nineteenth century as white supremacists in the Democratic Party began a process to permanently end African American political gains, culminating in the Virginia Constitution of 1902 that disfranchised almost all Black men. The number of Black legislators in the General Assembly gradually fell off by the 1890s to zero, and as did local officeholding. Still, these Black assemblymen set the foundation for later generations of Black legislative leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Black and white delegates attended the June 1881 state convention of the Readjuster Party, where Daniel and Robert Norton were among the speakers. The party nominated a slate of white candidates for statewide offices, but members approved a platform that included a declaration in support of “the right to a free ballot to be the right preservative of all rights” and expressed opposition to the poll tax. After the Readjusters accomplished their goal of reducing the principal of the state’s debt and the interest owed, the party collapsed and ceased functioning after 1885. Engraving in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 25, 1881, Library of Virginia.

On Thursday, February 23, join the Library of Virginia and Virginia Humanities in celebrating the completion of this signature project at a panel discussion, The First Civil Rights: Black Political Activism After Claiming Freedom. For more information about the event, please visit the Library’s calendar.

-John Deal and Mari Julienne, editors, Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Header Image Citation

This lithograph created by James C. Beard celebrates the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870 with illustrations of a parade in Baltimore, Maryland, and vignettes depicting African American life after slavery, including voting and serving in government. The amendment granted the right to vote to African American men, and was the third of three amendments adopted after the Civil War that profoundly altered American society, government, and politics. Library of Virginia.

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