OPINION — Several African-Americans served in the General Assembly after the Civil War

Published 4:39 pm Thursday, July 15, 2021

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The Civil War had ended and the United States of America was in turmoil.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Reconstruction was a time of economic, social and political rebuilding of the nation. From 1865 to 1877, former slave states could be readmitted to the Union on the condition they rebuild governments, hold state conventions and establish new constitutions.

In Virginia, African-American men were given the right to vote for and be elected as delegates to the Virginia Convention. In fact, 25 African-American men were elected to the 1867-1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention which created the 1869 Virginia Constitution. Unfortunately, African-American women were excluded from voting, yet counties were organized into magistrate districts. Around 100 African-American men served in the Virginia General Assembly between 1869 and 1890.

Unfortunately, in the south, the black codes were put in place to block the progress of the freed Blacks, and in turn Congress enacted the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment, which protects the rights of citizenship of freed men and women and the 15th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying citizens the right to vote because of race, color or previous servitude.

These laws enabled Blacks under the U. S. Constitution to run for public office as well. The quest to prevent Blacks from achieving more political freedom and perpetuate racial discrimination was the Compromise of 1877 which ended Reconstruction treating them as disenfranchised, second-class citizens from 1877 to the mid 1960s. Very few Blacks entered the political arena during the Jim Crow era. From 1890 to 1968 African-Americans weren’t represented in the Virginia General Assembly. In fact, the first African American to be elected in the 20th century as a Virginia House Delegate was William Ferguson Reid in 1967.

Here are a few examples of brave African-American men who conquered racism and amidst a tense political climate served in the Virginia General Assembly.

Born in 1838 in Charlotte County, Joseph R. Holmes, learning to read and write, eventually became a shoemaker. After the Civil War, Holmes became a supporter of the radical Republican Party, subsequently representing Charlotte and Halifax counties in the Virginia Constitutional Convention.

While in office, Holmes was asked to write a new state constitution and voted for the most radical reforms on practically every issue. In 1869, Joseph was gunned down on the courthouse steps in Charlotte Court House after being threatened with death if he did not stop his political activities.

In addition, John Watson, a former slave and shoemaker, served as a trustee for a Freedmen’s school and in 1867, won the election to the 1867 Constitutional Convention. Watson voted with the radical reformers, introducing three resolutions himself. Watson was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868 and of the House of Delegates from 1869 to 1870.

After the senseless murder of Joseph Holmes, Watson and several others were arrested for inciting violence because they dared to be outspoken about the tragedy. Later, the charges were dropped. He served the Republican Party as a delegate representing Mecklenburg County, voting to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments in the U. S. Constitution. Sadly, Watson died while in office.

Alfred William Harris, born enslaved in 1853 in Fairfax County, was a councilman and a lawyer. Beginning in 1881, he served four consecutive terms in the House of Delegates representing Dinwiddie County. Harris is responsible for introducing the bill that established Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) while in office. Harris died in 1920.

Joseph R. Jones worked as a storekeeper and postmaster, eventually serving in the Virginia Senate representing Charlotte and Mecklenburg counties from 1876 to 1877 and from 1881 to 1883. From 1885 to 1877, Jones served in the Virginia House of Delegates representing Mecklenburg County.

Born a slave in 1844, William H. Ragsdale was employed as a teacher, purchasing 122 acres of land in 1871 in Charlotte County for $1,400. From 1869 to 1871, Ragsdale served the county in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Born in 1846 in Charlotte County as a slave, Dabney Smith worked as a merchant, farmer and mail carrier. Smith purchased 134 acres of land in the county. Deeply involved in politics, Dabney represented Charlotte County in the Republican party, and he would do the same from 1881 to 1882 in the House of Delegates. In 1920, Dabney Smith died.

It was a great honor to these men that on September 17, 2013, a plaque was installed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond commemorating the contributions of the African-American members of the 1867-1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention and the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate members from 1869 to 1890.

Since the late 1960s, more women, including those of color, have campaigned, won and served in the hallowed halls of the Virginia General Assembly.

We as Virginians owe them gratitude and can continue to do so by voting in every election.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at The Central High Museum, lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.