The Public Assemblages Act of 1926

Ogden Hall at Hampton Institute

Ogden Hall at Hampton Institute served as the flashpoint of the fight for the Public Assemblages Act.

On a February evening in 1925, Walter Copeland and his wife arrived late to a dance recital at Ogden Hall at Hampton Institute, a private black college. Mrs. Copeland was distraught when she was seated near a black couple. Three weeks later on March 15, 1925, her husband, the editor of the Newport News Daily Press, wrote an editorial about the incident and hysterically warned of the amalgamation of the races that would eventually lead to the destruction of the Anglo Saxon race.1

Hampton Institute’s response to the editorial came from its white principal, Dr. Gregg, who replied with a letter to the editor in Copeland’s paper in which he vehemently denied that the school’s policies encouraged racial mixing or amalgamation. Copeland was not satisfied with the response and pointed out that Gregg had not denied teaching social equality. Copeland countered with even more questions about the school’s segregation practices in the classrooms, cafeterias, and entertainment venues.2

John Powell

John Powell founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America in 1922 to promote white supremacy.

Taking matters even further, Copeland joined forces with the famed piano player and noted white supremacist, John Powell, to form a Hampton post of the Anglo-Saxon Club on May 2. Powell formed the first post of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America with his friend Ernest Cox in 1922. Dedicated to maintaining white supremacy, the men defined their club in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. The violence and intimidation of the KKK were a threat to law and order. Rather, the Anglo-Saxon clubs attempted to manage race relations through legislative acts and appeals to public fears. At the height of their power in 1924, the clubs pressured the Virginia General Assembly to pass The Racial Integrity Act, which empowered the Bureau of Vital Statistics to racially identify Virginians as either white or colored.3

The attacks on Hampton Institute drew the attention of Norfolk’s black-owned newspaper, the weekly Norfolk Journal and Guide. In the post-WWI era, it held the largest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the South and its editor, P. B. Young, had emerged as a spokesperson for blacks in Virginia and the surrounding states. Daily white-owned newspapers often quoted its material.4 The editors of the two papers responded and countered each other with a flurry of articles and editorials. One particulary scathing editorial noted that while Copeland was worried that equal education and social equality would lead to mixed marriages and sexual intercourse, he seemed to have forgotten about the “three million or so illegitimate mulattoes.” Declaring that the Anglo-Saxon Clubs were “yelling murder and doing all the murder,” journalist Walter Pickens charged, “White men who are always crying out against amalgamation are solely responsible for all the amalgamation that has taken place.”5

The heated editorials caught the attention of W.E.B Du Bois, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In his June 1925 issue of Crisis magazine, Du Bois suggested an alternative response from President Gregg to Copeland’s original editorial. He noted that in the fifty- seven years of Hampton’s existence, not once had there been an incident of intermarriage or a mulatto child, yet “the result of racial segregation in the state of Virginia was officially reported at 164,171 mulattos in 1920.” He concluded that whites were not compelled to cross the color lines into black institutions and considered it “monstrous” that Copeland dare ask for segregation inside such arenas.6

Tensions flared again in November when an all-white glee club from the University of North Carolina performed at Ogden Hall and no segregated seating was established. A couple weeks later, on the night of November 27, three hundred Hampton citizens gathered to listen to Virginia’s most virulent white supremacists as they called on their delegate, Alvin Massenburg, to propose legislation that would “prohibit the mixing of audiences at public assemblages.” Massenburg quickly introduced the bill at the beginning of the House of Delegates session in January 1926.7

Richmond <em>News Leader </em>"Race Segregation Bill is Opposed"

This editorial in the Richmond News Leader discusses the harmful effects the Public Assemblages Act could have on foreign exchange students.

On January 26, the House Committee on General Laws held its first public hearing about the bill. Several notable and powerful white elites attended to argue against the bill. Among these were the president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, who asked Richmond’s delegates to fight the bill and described it as “unfortunate.”8 Many of Virginia’s white religious leaders also joined the opposition. They were primarily concerned that foreign students, mostly Chinese or Japanese, who were studying at the University of Richmond or the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, would be insulted and targeted by the racial segregation law. According to the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, these students were not considered white and would thus be required to be segregated under the provisions of the Public Assemblages Act.9

Louis Jaffe, editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, was the first white newspaper editor to speak out against the actions of the Anglo-Saxon clubs. Jaffe had a history of speaking out against the extreme views of white supremacists and had previously published several articles against the Ku Klux Klan. In one of his editorials, he opined that “that segregation practiced voluntarily by the two races is incomparably more desirable than segregation made mandatory by formal enactment.” He concluded his editorial with the provocative observation that if the whites of Virginia could enter into a private black school and demand special seating arrangements, then the blacks of the state had an equal right to enter a private white school and demand accommodations.10

Despite the opposition at the public hearing and in the press, the bill moved swiftly and easily through the House of Delegates, passing the floor vote on February 5.  Only two delegates cast dissenting votes. In early March, a provision was added to exempt foreign students from the required segregation. This provision may have helped the bill pass the Senate as it removed one of the key arguments of the opposition. The bill passed the Senate on March 9, 1926 and soon passed into law without Governor Byrd’s signature. He claimed that he did not feel comfortable vetoing a bill that received such an overwhelming majority in each chamber of the General Assembly. He did, however, note that he would have voted against it if he were still in the Virginia Senate.

In the end, Hampton Institute closed Ogden Hall’s doors to the public and made future events for students and faculty only. The law remained on the books for almost forty years. On a summer day in 1963 Felix Brown, along with several of his friends, attempted to watch a baseball game at Richmond’s Parker Field. They were denied entry because of their skin color. After suing the city of Richmond, Brown’s case made it to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled the law segregating the field and other public spaces unconstitutional.11

1. J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 106.

2. Newport News Daily Press, March 20, 1925.

3. Richard B. Sherman, “The Last Stand:’ The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s,” The Journal of Southern History 54, no. 1 (Feb., 1988), 69-92.

4. H. Lewis Suggs,“Black Strategy and Ideology in the Segregation Era: P. B. Young and the Norfolk Journal and Guide, 1910-1954” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 91, no. 2 (Apr., 1983), 168.

5. Walter Pickens, “Yelling Murder and Doing all the Murder,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 4, 1925.

6. W. E. B. Du Bois, "Social Equality at Hampton," Crisis, June 1925.

7. Smith, Managing White Supremacy, 112-117.

8. Richmond News Leader, February 2, 1926.

9. Richmond News Leader, February 9, 1926.

10. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, February 15, 1926.

11. Richard P. Sherman, “The ‘Teachings at Hampton Institute’: Social Equality, Racial Integrity, and the Virginia Public Assemblage Act of 1926,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95 no. 3 (Jul., 1987): 295-298.

Further Reading:

Primary Sources

The Crisis, June 1925. 

Newport News Daily Press, 1925, 1926.

Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 1925, 1926.

Richmond News Leader, 1925, 1926.

Secondary Sources

History.” Hampton University. 

Leidholdt, Alexander S. Editor for Justice: The Life of Louis I. Jaffé. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Sherman, Richard B. “ ‘The Last Stand:’ The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s.” Journal of Southern History 54 (February 1988): 69-92.

________. “The ‘Teachings at Hampton Institute’: Social Equality, Racial Integrity, and the Virginia Public Assemblage Act of 1926.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95, no. 3 (Jul., 1987): pp. 275-300.

Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Suggs, H. Lewis. “Black Strategy and Ideology in the Segregation Era: P. B. Young and the Norfolk Journal and Guide, 1910-1954.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 91, no. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 161-190.

Wolfe, Brendan. "Racial Integrity Laws (1924–1930)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Nov. 2015.

Wynes, Charles E. “The Evolution of Jim Crow Laws in Twentieth Century Virgina.” Phylon 28, no. 4 (4th Qtr, 1967), 416-425.

Young, Howard V. “William Howard Taft and Hampton Institute” in Stony the Road: Chapters in the History of Hampton Institute, edited by Keith L. Schall, 125-162. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.