Earlier this week we noted the anniversary of the Constitution of 1902, which disfranchised as many of Virginia’s black voters as the white delegates could get away with. All of this was done more or less out in the open; there was less of a tendency then to find euphemisms for racism. And as such, the state’s African Americans had a chance to appeal to the delegates.
It was not a pretty sight, as this story suggests. It appeared on the front page of the black-owned Richmond Planet on July 13, 1901:
The Suffrage Committee heard addresses for two hours yesterday morning from representative colored men on the suffrage question. Not one of the speakers uttered an intemperate word or advance an idea except with Moderation.
While all of the six who spoke plead for equal suffrage rights, not one asked for the right to hold office, one of them saying there was no need of law to prohibit Negroes from holding office; it was done already and it would require a law commanding him to be put in office before such a thing happened, and Negroes did not expect that.
It was noticeable that all the speakers dealt in generalities, no statistics showing the progress of the race in material, social or political development being presented. Neither was any sentiment expressed that did not evince a spirit of willingness to abide by the judgment and wisdom of the convention. This was eloquently expressed by Rev. Z. D. Lewis when he said, “whatever you may do we will be submissive, satisfied that you will do what you think is best for us all, and we will patiently await developments and will be watching and waiting and hoping to see that it was God’s hand that guided you.”
Why, I wonder, did the newspaper writer make special note of the fact that the speakers did not present “statistics showing the progress of the race”? Perhaps because there had been such progress, more even than the speakers wanted to let on.
The historian Michael Perman writes how the white delegates worried that Virginia’s blacks were become too well educated, and therefore obstacles to voting such as literacy tests would be less effective. One delegate spoke of how Mississippi’s blacks were 60 percent illiterate, compared with only a third of Virginia’s blacks. Virginia spent more on schools, and more blacks attended classes. And in case you were thinking of a beefed-up property test, more blacks were owning property, too!
The problems didn’t stop there for Virginia’s white ruling class. One prominent white lawyer complained that a poll tax probably wouldn’t work because “the negroes will pay up better than the poor whites, as they are fonder of voting.”
UPDATE: From commenter Randy Jones: Speaking of the Richmond Planet, its editor — the “fighting editor” — John Mitchell Jr. will be honored tomorrow with the dedication of a historical highway marker highlighting is life and crusade for civil rights for blacks. The marker will be dedicated at 11 a.m. The event will be held in the lobby of the 3rd and Marshall Streets’ entrance of the Richmond Convention Center.