Overview of Race Relations in Virginia


Black codes, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement have been the subject of many studies, books and digital projects. However, many of these projects tend to focus on the states of the Deep South where famous episodes of the Civil Rights movement garnered national attention. Lacking the dramatic and horrific scenes of lynching, murder and violence of race relations in the Deep South, Virginia is too often overlooked as a center for rich study of the struggle for black equality.

Virginia has a long and complicated history of racial oppression and integration. America’s first African-American slaves were brought to Virginia’s shores in 1619. Over two centuries later, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 13th Amendment freed all persons held as slaves. This marked a new period of white and black relations, one that was fraught with uncertainty about how to manage race relations.

The period of time from 1863 to 1954 is often presented as a rather static period of history with uniform efforts on the part of whites to establish oppressive laws and little activism from the black community. Virginia’s racial history is replete with rigid laws and practices alongside moments of rare, early activism from the black communities.  Jim Crow Lived Here seeks to bring about awareness and provide scholarship of some of the lesser-known instances of white supremacy, Jim Crow laws and black activism within Virginia’s post-emancipation history.


The Restored Government in Alexandria, which remained loyal to the Union, organized the 1864 Virginia Constitution that took effect for the entire state when the Confederacy surrendered. The constitution abolished slavery and realigned voting districts. However, much of Virginia did not recognize the Restored Government and remained under military rule. The Reconstruction Act of 1867, signed into law by President Andrew Johnson, reorganized the state into Military District Number One and required that Virginia write a new constitution that recognized black male suffrage in order to reenter the Union.

African- American men voted for the first time in Virginia in 1867 to elect representatives for a state constitutional convention. Voting was segregated.

In 1867, Virginians voted in a new constitutional convention that included twenty African-American members. The resulting document, often called the Underwood Constitution because of the leadership of Judge John C. Underwood, provided universal male suffrage to both white and black men. Two years after the convention began, Virginia voters ratified the new constitution and, at the same time, rejected the proposals that former Confederates should be banned from holding office or voting. In 1870, Virginia was finally admitted back into the Union and was able to send representatives to Congress. Seven years later federal troops were removed from the state and congressional Reconstruction was officially over.1

The period of 1870 to 1900 is one that is often glossed over and misrepresented as simply a continuation of racist attitudes from the antebellum period that eventually resulted in the state’s Jim Crow laws. However, some historians argue that a close examination of the historical record reveals that these years represent a period of interracial cooperation that indicates the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not a carry-over of post-emancipation attitudes and politics.

Thirteen African-American men served in Virginia's 1871-1872 General Assembly.

Thirteen African-American men served in Virginia's 1871-1872 General Assembly.

Jane Dailey, author of Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia, closely examines the period of 1879-1883, known as the Readjuster Years. During these four years blacks gained more political power than they had ever known. The Readjusters, led by railroad magnate William Mahone, supported black citizenship, suffrage, and jury service. This period of African-American political power, she argues, contributed to their eventual exclusion from political life. White Democrats who were threatened by blacks in positions of power later wrote the measures to disenfranchise and segregate the African-American population.2

C. Vann Woodward contends in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that though the oppression and exploitation of blacks was always present in the South, the most stringent segregation laws and practices did not appear until the late 1890s and early twentieth century. Writing in 1955, Woodward negated a popular sentiment of segregationists who argued that Jim Crow laws reflected the way things had always been in the South. He maintained that Jim Crow laws were a more recent phenomenon and they changed the nature of Southern societies by hardening racist attitudes and turning de facto segregation into lawful, codified segregation. Charles Wynes’s Race Relations in Virginia, 1870-1902 agrees with Woodward’s thesis and shows that conditions for blacks in Virginia did in fact deteriorate during those years and after 1902. He also lays the blame for Virginia’s segregation laws on the state’s legislators rather than on popular demand from the state's citizens.3


The 1902 state constitution almost completely disenfranchised black voters with measures like poll taxes and literacy tests. In the years that followed, Virginia’s legislature passed rigid laws to ensure that blacks and whites stayed in separate realms. In 1906 the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that required segregation on the state’s streetcars. Residential segregation came in 1912. Two acts passed in the 1920s that were the most specific segregation laws in the entire country. The Racial Integrity Act forbade interracial marriage and the Public Assemblages Act mandated the segregation of whites and blacks in areas of public entertainment like movie theaters and dance halls.

Across the state and the nation, the 1920s and 1930s saw heightened anxieties over issues of race and ethnicity. This is evidenced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the popularity of eugenics movements, and the Immigration Act that passed Congress in 1924, placing strict quotas on immigration, mostly from Eastern European countries. Within this context, for a Virginia elected official to oppose bills like the Racial Integrity Act or the Public Assemblages Act meant risking being called a “nigger lover” and losing his seat in the next election. Booker T. Washington eloquently summed up this fear among whites of opposing segregation laws. “It is always difficult," he wrote, "in the present state of opinion in the South, to have any considerable body of white people oppose them, because their attitude is likely to be misrepresented as favoring negroes against white people. They are, in the main, afraid of the stigma, ‘negro lover.'"4

Nancy MacLean’s study of the Ku Klux Klan links the rise of segregation laws and white supremacy groups to economic changes wrought from industrialization. In her book, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: the Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, she connects the development and the widespread success of the Klan to reactions to the changing economic character of the 1920s.5 Owning one’s own farm was ultimately the goal for many Southern white men. But it was a goal that became increasingly out of reach. Tenant farmers grew from forty-five percent to sixty-seven percent in 1920.

At the same time, more people began to enter into wage labor rather than agriculture. Economic opportunities opened up for whites and African Americans in the nation’s cities. Pushing into urban areas meant contact between the two races was now much more unavoidable. New social and economic relations caused anxiety among the very men who were used to having control over their families and black neighbors.6

Douglas Southall Freeman, the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1920s and 1930s, argued that the “Virginia Way” of race relations meant that whites and blacks led lives of “separation by consent.” Both races agreed to segregation, so long as whites provided blacks with basic services and blacks sought redress of grievances through channels deemed appropriate by whites.

J. Douglas Smith argues that Virginia’s white elite citizens who controlled the legislature and other powerful community organizations eschewed the terrorist tactics and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. They firmly believed in segregation and the inferiority of the black race but felt that paternalistic practices towards blacks resulted in peaceful and successful race relations. In the years following WWI, African- Americans refused to continue buying into this system and cracks appeared in the veneer of Virginia’s racial harmony.7

Protest sign from the student walk-out demonstration in Farmville demanding integrated schools.

Virginia was the site of some of the most significant, yet often unheard of, achievements in the struggle for civil rights. In 1904, fifty years before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black residents in Richmond, boycotted the city’s segregated streetcars. Samuel W. Tucker led the nation’s first sit-in protest at Alexandria’s public library in 1939. A year later, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that black and white teachers should be paid equally. This case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Norfolk County Public School teacher Aline Black. Virginian Irene Morgan helped bring about the end of segregation on interstate buses when she refused to move for a white woman. The Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution did not permit state segregation laws to be followed on interstate buses. Finally, in 1951, sixteen-year old Barbara Johns persuaded 450 students to walk out of Moton High School in Farmville in protest against crowded, inadequate educational facilities. Later, the case became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, often heralded as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

1. For more information on Virginia's 1864 and 1870 constitutions see Bearss, Sara B. "Virginia Constitutional Convention (1864)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Oct. 2015. and the introduction in Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

2. Dailey, Before Jim Crow

3. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Charles E. Wynes Races Relations in Virginia, 1870-1902 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1961); Charles E.Wynes,“The Evolution of Jim Crow Laws in Twentieth Century Virginia” Phylon 28 (Winter 1967): 416–25.

4. as quoted in Wynes, "The Evolution of Jim Crow Laws," 417.

5. Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: the Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 1994).

6. MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry, 37.

7. J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 3-8.