Life for African Americans in Virginia following the end of the Civil War can be described as uncertain at best. As the social balance between white and black Virginians was virtually turned on its head, Virginia’s African American population expected to be governed by the same system of law and order as their white neighbors. Unfortunately, this was usually not the case, and stories of mob violence directed towards African Americans permeate the historical record immediately following Emancipation. These stories are being uncovered daily by the Library of Virginia’s African American Narrative project and made public by the Library’s new exhibit, Remaking Virginia: Transformation Through Emancipation. These acts often erupted out of allegations of crimes committed by African Americans and usually ended in an illegal execution of the alleged criminals, bypassing the standard presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Two instances of such violence were recently discovered in the Library’s collection of Coroners’ Inquisitions. Coroners’ inquisitions are investigations into the deaths of individuals who died in a sudden, violent, unnatural or suspicious manner, or died without medical attendance. They are a revealing and sometimes gruesome source of historical information. In Accomack County, sometime in early April 1866, a coroner and his jury were sent to examine the body of an African American man found hanging from a tree. He was named James Holden, but little … read more »
In honor of the upcoming Election Day, today’s post presents a record that illustrates the struggles that some Virginians experienced while attempting to exercise the right to vote guaranteed them by the Fifteenth Amendment. Today’s ease of voter registration belies the fact that this has not always been so in Virginia for everyone. The Commonwealth’s Constitution of 1902 was a post-Reconstruction attempt to whittle down the voter rolls by making property ownership, poll taxes, and literacy tests prerequisites to voter registration, thereby eliminating large numbers of African Americans and poor whites. Section 19 of Article II specifically mentions the so-called “understanding clause” – the requirement that a person applying to register must be able to read or have read to him a section of the Constitution and explain its meaning to the registrar. It seems fairly clear that this understanding clause was not applied to every person registering to vote.
Warren County kept a register of voters titled “Refused Colored Applicants,” 1902-1903 (Barcode 1205724) consisting of dated entries by name of African American men attempting to register to vote, along with their ages, dates of birth, occupations, and how long they had lived in the state, county, and precinct. Also recorded is the section of the Virginia constitution that was given to the men for explanation (although not which article) and what their answers … read more »