Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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African American Virginia State Legislators

  • Some of the First African American Virginia State Legislators, 1871–1872
The 1871–1872 session of the Virginia General Assembly included some of the first African Americans to hold public office in the state.
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Some of the First African American Virginia State Legislators, 1871–1872

The end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865 led to important changes in American politics, especially in the former slave states. The most dramatic were changes to state constitutions and the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that granted the vote to African American men. The Virginia constitutional convention that first met in December 1867 included two dozen African Americans and numerous white reformers and men of northern birth. The convention and the constitution that it adopted are known by the name of the convention's president, federal judge John C. Underwood. The constitution provided for the creation of the state's first free public school system for all children, and it expanded the right to vote to all adult men who had not taken a significant part in the Confederate army or in the Confederate government or the government of the state of Virginia that was a part of the Confederacy. When the state's voters, who included African American men, ratified the constitution in 1869, they voted separately on the provisions that disenfranchised former Confederates and deleted them from the new constitution. Congress then admitted senators and representatives from Virginia, ending Congressional Reconstruction in the state.

One of the first acts of the new General Assembly that met for the first time in 1869 and in which the first African Americans served, was to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution to prohibit any state from denying any man the right to vote because of his "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This image contains portraits of some of the members of the 1871–1872 Virginia General Assembly. Portraits of the African American members are all placed on the bottom row. Despite blacks' legal political equality, many white Americans continued to treat African Americans as lesser citizens, both literally and figuratively, as in this illustration.

African American political leaders in the years following the Civil War tended to be somewhat wealthier and to have more education than other African Americans, and many of them were of mixed-race descent. Peter Jacob Carter of Northampton County, Joseph P. Evans of Petersburg, Richard G. L. Paige of Norfolk, and Henry Turpin of Goochland County, all members of the assembly in 1871–1872, were born into slavery. Before becoming involved in politics, Paige was educated at Howard University and Carter served in the United States Army and attended what became Hampton University. Other African American political leaders were lawyers, storekeepers, and postmasters, which helped them become well known throughout their communities. Some of them were born free, such as William Gilliam of Prince George County, Peter K. Jones of Greenville County, and William H. Patterson of Charles City County. Henry Cox of Powhatan County may have also been born free. They faced many of the same difficulties and obstacles as the men who were born into slavery. They worked in jobs similar to other freedmen, such as mechanic, farmer, or minister. These pioneering African American political leaders in Virginia, and throughout the South used the guarantee of suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment to their full advantage and paved the way for future leaders to follow in their footsteps.

For Educators

Questions

1) What expanded privilege did the Underwood Constitution provide for in Virginia?

2) What were some of the issues that African Americans faced when running for office?

3) What were some of the jobs held by the first African Americans elected to the Virginia Legislature?

4) What do you notice about the arrangement of the individual photographs in this image? What is the significant of where the pictures of the black legislators are placed?

Further Discussion

1. The Underwood Constitution, protested by conservatives and dominated by Radical Republicans, called for African American males in Virginia to be allowed the right to vote. How was this situation handled in other southern states? Research other state constitutional conventions during Reconstruction. How was the suffrage of former slaves handled throughout the South?

Suggested Reading

Jackson, Luther P. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk: Guide Quality Press, 1945.

Rabinowitz, Howard. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.