The Readjusters, a coalition of black and white Republicans and other men who wished to refinance the state's prewar internal improvements public debt at a lower rate of interest, won a majority in the General Assembly in 1879, and they elected a governor in 1881, beginning a short period of biracial government in Virginia that produced numerous reforms in tax policy and improvements in education and other public services for African Americans. Unpopular with those who believed in the superiority of the white race and many other men who believed that reducing and refinancing the public debt was bad policy, the Readjusters won office in several Virginia cities, including Danville in 1882.
In the years following the Civil War, Danville, like many southern towns, grew quickly as the region began to urbanize. Industrial workers in tobacco companies and textile mills came to the city, nearly doubling the prewar population. In 1882 the Readjuster Party was victorious on a local level, after the Readjuster-controlled General Assembly changed the Danville area from one voting bloc into three wards, two of which had African American majorities. The result was a Danville Common Council that was composed of four white Democrats, four white Readjusters, and four black Readjusters.
Prior to the 1883 election the city's Democratic leadership had published and distributed a pamphlet entitled Coalition Rule in Danville. The pamphlet, which was popularly referred to as the Danville Circular, was addressed to the residents of the southwestern and Valley regions of Virginia. The aims of the pamphlet were to list the grievances that some white people of Danville had with the Readjuster-dominated government and to plead that their like-minded neighbors vote for “the Conservative-Democratic candidates for the Legislature, for unless they are elected we are doomed.” The circular lists a number of complaints with the Readjuster government, including the appointment of African Americans as police officers, and the greater presence of African Americans in the marketplace. The increased influence of African Americans within the Readjuster government was an affront to conservative white Virginians. The concern was not simply economic or political, but also social.
Three days before the election, an altercation in the streets of Danville erupted into gunfire that left several people dead or wounded. Contemporary reports indicate that the confrontation began as an issue over physical space, and whether or not African Americans were to yield sidewalk space to their white counterparts. Blatantly playing on the fears of white voters, Democrats capitalized on what was later called the Danville Riot. This campaign to defeat the Readjusters and win a majority of seats in the General Assembly proved effective, and the Democrats won control of the assembly. The Readjuster coalition eventually collapsed. Most black Readjusters returned to the Republican Party, which had claimed their allegiances since the 1860s, but white Readjusters who were uneasy at the prominence that black men had held in the coalition joined the Democrats and took part in a campaign that lasted nearly twenty years to disenfranchise black men in Virginia.
1. Why were the conservative Democrats upset with the Readjuster Party?
2. Name three of the concerns/complaints listed in the Danville Circular.
1. Do you think that the violence in Danville was directly responsible for the Democratic political victories in 1883? Why or why not?
2. What impact did the dissolution of the Readjuster Party have on life for African Americans? Would there still be issues of discrimination and disenfranchisement in the twentieth century?
Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Calhoun, Walter T. “The Danville Riot and Its Repercussions on the Virginia Election of 1883”, in East Carolina College Publications in History, Vol. III: Studies in the History of the South, 1875–1922. Greenville: Eastern Carolina College Press, 1966.