Virginia's 1902 Constitutional Convention effectively stripped African-Americans of their voting rights. The new constitution incorporated a $1.50 poll tax for each of the three years leading up to the election, which many white officials knew blacks in the state could not pay. Those wishing to register also had to seek out a registrar who conducted an extensive examination full of complex questions about state legal proceedings. The 1902 constitution also required racial segregation in public schools.
1902 Virginia Constitution
Most Virginians did not care to revise the 1868 constitution. Attempts to overhaul the constitution were defeated in 1888, 1893, and 1897. In 1900, a referendum passed by fewer than eighteen percent of Virginia’s voters. Virginia Democrats, the overwhelming voice calling for constitutional reform, blamed the need for a new constitution on black voters who, according to Democrats, contributed to fraud in Virginia politics.1
Voter eligibility dominated discussions at the convention. The members of the convention were deeply divided over who could and could not vote. Leading Democrats who dominated the convention made plain their desire to eliminate blacks and white Republicans from the voter registration rolls. Carter Glass, a member of the convention and later a U.S. Congressman and senator, exclaimed, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what this Convention was elected for- to discriminate…with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of.”2
The Fifteenth Amendment ensured that the right to vote was not based on racial lines. However, it did not protect against other forms of disenfranchisement. The convention decided on two measures that intended to exclude black voters. Every voter would be required to be read and explain a portion of the constitution upon the demand of the board of voter registration. Additionally the convention imposed a poll tax of $1.50 for each of the three years leading up to the election that all Virginians had to pay six months prior to the election. Any Civil War veteran of the Union or Confederacy or his son was exempt from these new requirements.3
On July 10, 1902 the new constitution took effect, replacing the Reconstruction-era 1869 constitution. The convention was concerned that a majority of Virginians might not ratify the new constitution. Rather than submit it for public approval the delegates simply declared it law.4
The disenfranchisement clauses had an immediate impact on voting across the state. In 1900 there were 6,000 registered voters in Richmond; by 1902 the number was down to 760. Even in Jackson Ward, the powerful African-American neighborhood of the capitol city where 3,000 registered voters resided, the number was reduced to 33 by 1903. Other cities across the commonwealth suffered similarly. The white electorate was not immune to these changes either. Many illiterate whites feared the humiliation of voter registration boards and ceased to participate in elections. The Tazewell Republican contended that the new constitution cut the white electorate by fifty percent.5
1. Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow:The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 162.↩
2. as quoted in Dailey, Before Jim Crow, 164.↩
4. J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 26. ↩
5. Dailey, Before Jim Crow, 165.↩
Breitzer, Susan. "Virginia Constitutional Convention (1901–1902)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 May. 2015.
Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Dinan, John J. The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide. New York: Greenwood Publishing Co., 2006.
Holt, Wythe W. Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1902. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.
McDanel, Ralph Clipman. The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–02. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928.
Pulley, Raymond H. Old Virginia Restored: An Interpretation of the Progressive Impulse, 1870–1930. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968, 66–91.
Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Virginia General Assembly, "Virginia Constitution, 1902," in Virginia Civics, Item #517.