PETERSBURG AND THE ATLANTIC WORLD
LOCAL HISTORY IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
The Virginia Voters League PDF Print E-mail

Shayla C. Nunnally

University of Connecticut

Political Uncertainty and Black Disfranchisement—1865-1902

In the antebellum period, there were an equal number of blacks in Petersburg who were both free and enslaved, and despite the inhumanity of slavery, a large number of blacks were able to build black institutions in the city and acquire property. Much of Petersburg’s history, however, is recognized for its significance to the Civil War, wherein the city became a site for a ten-month siege during the Civil War. Blacks’ struggle for equality in the early- and mid- twentieth century exemplifies the rich, political networks that blacks were able to develop and sustain in Petersburg, a history less widely-known about the city.

For blacks in Petersburg and other parts of the South, post-bellum Reconstruction ushered in a new era of freedom and political influence for blacks. Former slaves had been emancipated from slavery (1865) and provided access to both citizenship (1868) and suffrage (1870), all from post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. With the franchise, blacks acquired a new-found influence on Southern politics, as they participated in elections as both voting constituents and political candidates. During this era, many blacks were elected to office, including several from Petersburg; yet, eventual conscious political disfranchisement by disgruntled white Southerners would lead to the exclusion of many black voters and representatives until the mid-twentieth century. Blacks’ Reconstruction-era political progress would soon be interrupted by the dissatisfaction of Southern white political leaders who were frustrated with blacks’ empowerment to win elections amid strife and factionalism among Southern whites who were divided over how best to redevelop the South, post-Civil War.

For Virginia, after re-entering the Union on January 26, 1870, ideological strife concerning the best direction for the state and addressing its Civil War debt especially evinced via the political controversies among the Readjuster (attractive to blacks) and Funder factions of the Conservative Party and Republican Party (attractive to blacks) in Virginia politics. Resultant reorganization of the Conservative party Funders in 1883 led to the formation of the Democratic Party in Virginia, which soon organized itself as the party of white group interests. Largely during the latter nineteenth century through mid-twentieth century, the Southern wing of the Democratic Party became associated with the Solid South ideology of white supremacy. Also, rampant dissatisfaction with blacks’ progress during Reconstruction era—development of black businesses, advancements in black education, and establishment of black institutions—instilled fear among whites who held power via the racial structure that landed them squarely atop all the resources in the region and beyond. In a letter to an editor of the Richmond Daily Dispatch , a concerned reader expressed:

“There is considerable feeling here that the Legislature should do something for the relief of Petersburg from the yoke of Radical and negro rule which rides her bowed neck. The burthen becomes heavier and more oppressive every day. ”

With such success in everyday life, blacks were perceived as “stepping outside their place” and living beyond the means of what many whites thought was best for “negroes”—second-class citizenship. Opposition to blacks’ power and sociopolitical advancement mounted to whites inflicting widespread intimidation and dismantling of black progress. Jim Crow segregation and exclusionary laws leveled blacks to sub-white status, a low-point for blacks’ social, economic, and political experiences. Desperate concerns about blacks’ political power also led to widespread disfranchisement of blacks in Virginia and other states across the South.

Following the tide of the post-Reconstruction, frenzy to disfranchise the “Negro” from Southern politics in the latter nineteenth century, in 1902, the Virginia legislators revised the state constitution with the intent to strip blacks of their political power and right to the franchise. The newly added “understanding clause” incorporated a literacy test for voting that required males age 21 and over to read and explain any part of the state constitution. By 1904, a $1.50 capitation tax replaced the “understanding clause,” making the poll tax a prerequisite for voting. Voters were required to pay the tax consecutively for three years in order to be eligible to vote. With little education and limited affluence, many blacks and whites were effectively disfranchised. The brunt of disfranchisement, however, disproportionately affected blacks, who already had limited socioeconomic status because of their racial oppression.

Due to political exclusion, many blacks became disinterested in voting, and the franchise became more broadly perceived as the white man’s enterprise. The level of blacks’ political participation evident during Reconstruction era plummeted due to low efficacy and disenchantment about overcoming the white power structure. Only with concerted effort would Virginia blacks become interested in the ballot as a means of political influence. After four decades of political exclusion, a professor at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg—Luther Porter Jackson—would become the leading figure in blacks’ awakened political consciousness and franchise movement in Virginia.

Luther P. Jackson and Political Organizing among Blacks in Petersburg and Virginia

Luther P. Jackson was born in 1892 in Lexington, Kentucky to ex-slaves, Edward Williams Jackson and Delilah Culverson. He completed both a Bachelor of Arts degree (1914) and a Master of Arts degree (1916) at Fisk University. Because the Columbia University Teachers College would not accept his credits, he completed a year of classes at the City College of New York in order to transfer credits toward receipt of his Master of Arts degree at Columbia. Eventually, Jackson acquired a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Dr. Jackson entered the faculty of Virginia State Normal and Industrial Institute (present-day Virginia State University) in 1922 as a historian. His future wife, Johnella Frazer (mother of their four children, Edward, Laura, Frances, and Luther P., Jr.) wooed him to consider a position there. She also was a faculty member at Virginia State, having accepted an appointment at the institution in 1916 as a music educator.

Serving on the faculty at Virginia State until his death, Jackson was an eminent scholar. He authored several publications on blacks in Petersburg, some of which included “Free Negroes of Petersburg, VA” (1927) and a book based on his dissertation, Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia , 1830-1860 (1942). Jackson combined his scholarship with his activism, as he became involved in organizing political activities of several organizations between 1937 and 1950—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Negro Organization Society, the Virginia Chapter of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Virginia Teachers Association, the Elks, the Petersburg League of Negro Voters, and the Virginia Voters League. Most notable, Jackson orchestrated many electoral efforts that re-politicized black Virginians toward electoral participation.

As an affiliate of the Petersburg Civic Association, a civic organization interested in promoting “the Moral and Economic interest of Petersburg’s Colored Citizens,” Jackson coordinated with several Petersburg leaders, some of whom included H.O. Harrison, D.C. Valentine, Russell Holmes, Robert Thomas, H.H. Williams, and Captain Thomas Brown, to discuss how to empower the black community beyond sponsorship of civic activities. Founded on October 2, 1929, by 1931, the civic organization shifted its focus to include building an interest in electoral politics among blacks in Petersburg. Jackson surveyed Petersburg to assess the conditions of the Petersburg political structure and to account for the number of blacks who paid their poll taxes. He also solicited blacks in Petersburg to pay their poll taxes and participate in elections. The explicit concern to increase the number of black voters in Petersburg led to the formation of the Petersburg League of Negro Voters in 1935.

The Petersburg League’s draft constitution stated, “We Negro Citizens of Petersburg, Virginia, in order to promote better citizenship, secure Race Unity, and take active part in the Government of our City, State, and Nation, do hereby create an organization to manage, direct, and protect these principles.” It sought to propel blacks toward full citizenship by advocating their payment of the poll tax and participation in elections. Membership initially was extended to any civic or fraternal organizations in Petersburg, providing they offered at most two representatives who were qualified voters for Virginia elections. Neighborhood block captains monitored and encouraged black residents of Petersburg to pay their poll taxes and vote.

At the organization’s inception, organizers merely wanted blacks to participate in electoral politics. By 1938, the focus became clearer—to push blacks toward building a black voting bloc and thinking critically about candidates who supported blacks’ best interests. Jackson saw this newer focus as an opportunity to uplift the masses of blacks—as voters, they showed their civility and interest in politicians being held accountable to their constituency. With the assistance of students at Virginia State Normal and Industrial Institute, Jackson canvassed 2000 houses in Petersburg regarding blacks’ thoughts about voting. From this research, he produced a report entitled, “What the People Think about Voting in Petersburg, Virginia.” He also advertised the work of the Petersburg League in the Norfolk Journal and Guide , where he wrote weekly columns, “Rights and Duties in a Democracy,” from 1942-1948, to encourage blacks across Virginia and nationwide to vote.

With the support and initiative of the Virginia Teachers Association and several leaders from Petersburg (Raymond Valentine and Robert Cooley, both attorneys), at an education conference hosted at Virginia State on May 3, 1941, Jackson was a part of the establishment of the Virginia Voters League. He and the aforementioned Petersburg leaders served as officers in the League. The League, headquartered in Petersburg, was the clearing house for electoral activities across the state of Virginia. Organizations reported their activities to the larger League, sought counsel about electoral violations, and offered support to counter discriminatory practices. The League comprised a federation of voting leagues across the state from 80 counties and 24 cities. Jackson authored the organ of the League’s communication— The Voting Status of Negroes in Virginia , publishing it annually as the chief writer until his death in 1950. In this publication, Jackson surveyed and documented blacks’ voting behavior in reports published annually about the status of blacks’ franchise. The publications cited poll tax laws, instructions for paying poll taxes, duties of local registrars, recourse for franchise violation by registrars, racial discrimination claims against registrars, states’ disfranchisement records, and registration and voting trends among blacks. More importantly, through the auspices of Jackson’s leadership, many black Virginians were reoriented toward the use of the ballot in black politics.

In the World War II era, the League advocated on behalf of democracy world-round, including among blacks experiencing the belittlement of Jim Crow domestically. Through the aegis of Dr. Luther P. Jackson, Petersburg became the centrality of a pre-1960s voting movement among blacks in Virginia. Despite efforts to sustain the League’s momentum after Jackson’s death in 1950, the League’s efforts eventually declined. The contributions of Dr. Luther Porter Jackson illuminated the resource network of Petersburg residents and their greater influence on Virginia politics. With the advent of the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, yet again, black Petersburg activism was sustained by the leadership of local activists in the clergy and the broader black community who sought an egalitarian society. Notwithstanding these efforts, they were preceded by the politicization of civic organizing among black Petersburg residents two decades prior.


Notes



Luther P. Jackson, “Free Negroes of Petersburg, Virginia,” Journal of Negro History 12 (3, July 1927), 365-388.

Luther P. Jackson, Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942).

George L. Fayermore served in the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly (1869-1871) and served on the Petersburg City Council; Peter G. Morgan served in the House of Delegates from (1869-1870), and served on both the Petersburg City Council and School Board; Joseph Evans served in the House of Delegates (1871-1873) and in the State Senate (1874-1875).

Charles E. Wynes, Race Relations in Virginia , 1870-1902 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1961).

Charles E. Wynes, Race Relations in Virginia , 1870-1902 .

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford University Press, 1955, 1971). J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

Charles E. Wynes, Race Relations in Virginia , 1870-1902 , 7.

Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (London: Collier Books, 1965).

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1971).

Andrew Buni, The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902-1965 (Charlottesville, VA: The University of Virginia Press, 1967).

Michael Dennis, Luther P. Jackson and a Life for Civil Rights (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004).

Marva D. Curtis, “Luther P. Jackson and the Virginia Voters League,” (M.A. Thesis, Virginia State University, 1979).

Luther P. Jackson and Robert Cooley proposal to expand the League, December 7, 1938, Box 18, Folder 677, Luther P. Jackson Papers, Virginia State University.

Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984).

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