Summer 2021 Update (Updated May 3, 2021): Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) will remain by-appointment for the summer (late May-early August 2021). SCUA will be open for appointments from 10a-4pm, Monday through Thursday (subject to change and availability of staff). Seats can be booked using the Library’s seat reservation system or by going directly to the Special Collections and University Archives seat page. Seats must be booked one (1) week in advance. Additional SCUA policies and information for booking and visiting by-appointment are available on our website or researchers can contact us at email@example.com or 540-231-6308 (please leave a message for a call back).
We also remain available for virtual reference at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we continue to check voicemail at our reference desk number (540-231-6308). You can find updated information about hours and services for Newman Library and University Libraries branches at https://lib.vt.edu/.
Please note: We will be closed Monday, May 31st, for Memorial Day and Monday, July 5th, for observance of July 4th.
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host substantial physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit We Are Better Than We Think: Selections from the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the items Virginia Tech received following the events of April 16th. It features artifacts, children’s letters, poems, and more with messages of love, hope, and peace, most of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
The title piece of the exhibit, “We Are Better Than We Think” by Eric W. Schuttler (pictured above) is on display in Newman Library near the 2nd floor entrance, April 12 thru April 23 during the library’s open hours. (No other items are on display.)
For more information on the university’s remembrance events, including the virtual 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance, please visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/.
For the last 5 months, I have been kept busy with processing the recently acquired papers of Rupert Cutler, a prominent environmentalist and activist who has lived and worked in Roanoke since 1991. He was Assistant Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter, and since has served in leadership roles in several environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and The Wilderness Society, among others. He has also served on Roanoke City Council and on the boards of Opera Roanoke, The Western Virginia Land Trust, the Western Virginia Water Authority, and the Nonprofit Resource Center of Western Virginia. He was also the executive director of The Explore Park, and has been instrumental in establishing a number of conservation easements and parks in the New River Valley.
Processing this collection has proved challenging on a number of levels. The first, and most pressing of these are the time restrictions caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In order to create as much distance between employees as possible, I only have access to the building that houses the collection three days a week. When the grant that funds this project was written, a five day work week was assumed. In order to keep the project on track, I need to spend every moment that I am onsite processing, which is intense and draining. I’ve needed to plan my work very carefully to make the most of my time on campus and at home.
The second challenge has been the size of the collection. It spans 142 boxes and 6 decades. Cutler was and still is an extremely active and engaged figure, and he saved a great deal from his life. It is wonderful to have such a deep and broad look into his life, but the scope of materials is also a little daunting.
Finally, the third major challenge of working with this collection has been the need to categorize materials that resist easy sorting. Cutler blended personal, professional, environmental, and political on many occasions in his correspondence and works. It can be difficult to decide where to put a letter that references his environmental activism, his service on City Council, and casual news about mutual friends in the same missive. Based on the evidence of his papers, Cutler made friends easily and had a knack for bringing his many interests together, which has proven somewhat troublesome when neat descriptions are called for.
The time constraints of working on this collection have limited the amount of time I can spend with any one document, and expediency demands a balance between the materials being loosely sorted in a way that will mostly allow researchers to find what they’re looking for, and putting each item in its own folder with a thorough description of its themes. I think I’ve found a good compromise of specificity and generality, but the process has really driven home for me the importance of critical thinking and decision making skills to the work of an archivist. I hope I’ve made the right calls, but only time can tell.
Processing the personal papers of almost anyone can raise significant moral quandaries, and this collection is no different. It is a great privilege to rifle through the records of another person’s life, and the resulting information needs to be treated with respect and care. There is a constant need to balance accuracy with sensitivity. Historically, archivists were meant to be unbiased and without emotion, simple conveyors of fact into posterity. However, it is crucial for the modern archivist to recognize that such impartiality is actually impossible to achieve, and to make the best of it. The simple act of choosing to promote one collection and allow another to fall into obscurity is biased, and such decisions cannot be avoided, nor can the many hundreds of more fraught choices.
Nowhere are these tricky questions of right and wrong and justice and accuracy and kindness more common and immediate than in personal papers. We all must do our best, and sometimes we fall down. Growth is the important factor, for collection creators and the archivists who work on their legacies. Erasing our mistakes doesn’t make them go away, and just as important as evidence of our successes is that of our failures, and how we respond to them. It would be unfair to the collection creators and the world to deify or demonize people who were just being human. I find the humanity of the people represented in the collections I work on to be the most valuable part of the record, and that reflecting my own humanity in the decisions I make about the collection is the best way to move forward. I hope posterity agrees.
As often happens while looking for something in Special Collections and University Archives’ Historical Photographs Collection, I recently ran across an unexpected item that caught my interest. In this case, it was a school photo that I’d never seen. Captioned “Calfee Graded School, Pulaski, Va., 1917,” the photo features students and teachers of Pulaski County’s segregated school for African-American children. The caption identifies the principal of the school, more formally known as Pulaski Training School, as M. E. W. Buford.
I was unable to find much information on the school’s early history, unfortunately. Conway Howard Smith’s The Land That Is Pulaski County (1981) tells us that the two-story, brick school was built on the west side of Main Street in 1894. A 1921 education report records that year’s enrollment of the school as 276 students.
By the 1930s, the 40-year-old Calfee Training School had fallen into a state of disrepair, and leaders in the African-American community were pushing for an accredited replacement. Local physician Percy C. Corbin and others called for a school that would be of equal quality to that of its counterparts for local white students.
The need for a new school became more urgent in 1938, when the school pictured above was destroyed by fire. Ultimately, the school board funded a new elementary school, to be located across the street from the original location. The new facility, featuring eight classrooms, was completed the following year at a cost of approximately $35,000.
Rather than investing in a new facility for students of high school age, however, the board chose to bus the county’s older Black students to Christiansburg Industrial Institute in neighboring Montgomery County. (At the time, Pulaski County was served by three high schools for white students.) Because the bus ride of approximately 30 miles was so time-consuming, it deprived the transported students from participating in after-school activities, limited their study time at home, and created untold additional problems. The unsatisfactory arrangement ultimately led to a 1947 lawsuit, Corbin et al., v County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, which became part of a larger collection of local class-action lawsuits initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense fund to equalize the education of the races. According to the National Archives website, the Pulaski County suit ended in a victory for the plaintiffs on appeal in Baltimore’s U. S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949. A hollow victory, however, the case’s conclusion apparently brought little change in practice, and it became the last in the NAACP’s efforts toward equalization, as civil rights activists soon began to instead focus their energies on the goal of school desegregation.
The Pulaski County school system finally became integrated in 1966, and the Calfee School closed. Through the succeeding decades, the school building has served several different purposes and has gradually fallen into disrepair.
Today, the Calfee Training School—the school built in 1939—is again in the news, as efforts are underway to restore the building and give it a new purpose. If existing plans are realized, the new Calfee Community & Cultural Center will include a museum, a childcare center, a community kitchen, and office space for non-profits, all while preserving a significant piece of local history.
Dr. Ben Bova passed away on Sunday, November 29, 2020 from COVID-19 related pneumonia and a stroke. Bova did a great many things in his life—he was a journalist, a technical writer, an editor, a teacher, and more—but likely will be remembered by the general public most often and most fondly for his hard science fiction stories and for his editorial stewardship of flagship magazines Analog (1972-1978) and Omni (1978-1982).
I won’t spend much time eulogizing the man, because I did not know him and those who did already performed the task powerfully and articulately. Instead, I want to explore a few examples of Bova’s work from our collections and his belief in hard science fiction (referred to by Bova as “real science fiction”) as a serious means of grappling with societal issues. Bova once explained “real science fiction” in a column he wrote for the Naples Daily News:
When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to – as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.
Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.
Things like mobile phones, earbud headphones, and the internet on which you’re reading this once existed only in the fantastic worlds of the pulp magazines but now are not only real but commonplace. Bova’s own work predicted solar-powered satellites, the space race of the 1960s, human cloning, virtual reality, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative, among other trends and events.
Because hard science fiction hews closely to contemporary scientific knowledge while building alternative worlds and surrogate solutions to modern problems and extrapolated concerns, and because Bova was born into the Great Depression, grew up during World War II, and became an adult during the Cold War, many of his stories explore various scenarios in which, and the methods by which, societal power is concentrated and dispersed. Below are a few examples of such stories from Bova’s substantial ouvre.
The Dueling Machine(1969) In this book, Bova predicts both virtual reality and the internet. The titular Dueling Machine around which the plot is centered allows aggrieved individuals to enter an artificial arena through networked virtual reality setups, combat one another according to an agreed upon set of rules, and leave the experience unscathed in the end, win or lose. The machine has ushered in a new era of peace – one that allows mankind to indulge in its baser instincts without true injury. That is, until someone discovers a way to use this means of peace to kill.
What better way than this machine to avoid the horrors of war experienced in the 1930s and 40s and under the threat of which many lived during the Cold War years thereafter? And how terrifying might it have been in that context to consider the very mechanism of that tenuous peace being seized by those who seek war?
Millennium (1976) Millennium is set in 1999 on the moon base Selene. Both the American and Russian inhabitants of Selene call themselves “Luniks” and the two communities have a good working relationship. On Earth, however, the Americans and Russians are careening toward nuclear war and both sides try to pull Selene into the conflict. Instead, the American and Russian leaders on the moon proclaim the independent nation of Selene and seize control of the orbiting stations that control the American and Soviet defense satellites.
Years before the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed by many “Star Wars”) of the Reagan administration, Bova predicted the use of satellites as a safeguard against ballistic missiles and arguably, how that technology would affect the nuclear stalemate between the USSR and America.
Test of Fire (1982) This re-write of Bova’s 1973 When the Sky Burned grapples very explicitly with the most feared result of the Cold War tensions of the time. The story takes place after a giant solar flare wipes out the populations of Europe, Asia, and Africa and the USSR destroys much of North America in what it mistakenly believes to be retaliation. The last bastion of civilization as we know it exists on the Moon in a lunar base that needs fuel from the now savage Earth.
To explore the possible politics and societal constructs of post-annihilation humanity, Bova anchors the story around the family at the center of the lunar base’s leadership, a group whose motives are often in conflict and whose moral failings are many, as they seek what they need on Earth.
Ben Bova’s work demonstrates how deeply he cared about the global community, and how carefully he marked its failings and successes. He married these observations with his belief in “real science fiction” as a predictive and at its best prescriptive force in society, to create stories both intriguing and instructive. Here, I will leave you with Bova’s own simple description of “what could be”:
If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.
We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.
But very few of us read enough science fiction to learn how to look into the future and see the possibilities of tomorrow, both the good and the bad. Certainly our political leaders are constantly surprised by each new crisis. They don’t look into the future any farther than the next election day.
Science fiction, at its best, is an experimental laboratory where you can test new ideas to see how they might affect people and whole societies. To my mind, it should be required reading for everyone.
Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives owns as part of the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection thousands of novels and roughly 4,500 issues from over 200 titles of British, Australian, and primarily American pulp magazines, dating from the 1910s through the 1980s.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
U.S. Senate website, Art & History, Timeline: The Senate and the 19th Amendment
Introduced on January 10, 1878 by California Republican Senator Aaron Sargent, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” took 42 years to be passed and ratified by the requisite states to become a part of the United States Constitution. Over the course of those 42 years, women organized to advocate for their rights, sending petitions, protesting, and lobbying lawmakers in Washington. In response, women were condescended to, reviled, vilified, and assaulted by opponents to woman suffrage.
The woman suffrage amendment was defeated in the Senate four times, in 1887, 1914, 1918, and June of 1919. The amendment passed the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919 and finally passed in the Senate on June 4, 1920. It was quickly ratified by the required three-fourths of states when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 26, 1920, granting women nationwide the right to vote. Their first opportunity to exercise that right happening just two months and seven days later in the 1920 election.
Last fall, I was asked to put together an exhibit commemorating the 19th Amendment to be displayed sometime in 2020. Generally, our exhibits highlight materials in one of our main collecting areas. National politics is not one of those collecting areas. Still, with a little searching of our catalog and finding aids, I was able to identify some unique and interesting items related to the fight for woman suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment.
If you happen to be in Newman Library before the end of the year, you can check out the Votes for Women exhibit in the Special Collections and University Archives windows on the first floor. For those who won’t be stopping by the library, some letters from suffragists included in our collections are highlighted here.
First are two letters from Adelaide Avery Claflin (July 28, 1846 – May 31, 1931) to Mrs. Hollander discussing an upcoming speaking engagement for the woman suffrage association. These are from the Adelaide A. Claflin Letters (Ms1992-005). Claflin was a resident of Quincy, Massachusetts and began speaking publicly in support of woman suffrage in 1883. She became a member of the Qunicy school committee in 1884 and was the first known woman to hold elected office in the town. For more about Claflin and the suffrage movement in Qunicy, check out Remember the Ladies: Woman’s Suffrage and the Black Holes of Local History on the Quincy History Blog.
The first letter reads:
Tues. Nov. 11 1884, Mrs. Hollander, Dear madam,
I have received a note from Mrs. Stone, (giving me your name simply as above,) and asking me to communicate with you in case I were willing to speak for you in Somerville on Sunday, the 22d and on the same subject on which I lately spoke in South Boston. As the 22nd is Saturday, I am left in a little doubt as to the real date desired, and I am also a little embarrassed in my writing by some other causes. I have a bad cold just now, but probably would be well enough to speak by that time, and would like to do so, as far as I know at present. But I did not speak, exactly, at So. Boston, I read a written essay upon “What women as a class owe to each other”, and this essay, substantially, was read to the Somerville Woman’s Club a year ago. I do not know whether that club is in the same part of Somerville, or whether that would be any objection. I should, therefore be glad to hear further from you in regard to the circumstances, as Mrs. Stone’s note was extremely brief.
Very truly yours, Adelaide A. Claflin 21 Chestnut St. Quincy Maſ.
The second letter reads:
Friday, Nov. 14, 1884, My dear Mrs. Hollander,
I am much obliged for your explanation in regard to the lectures and I am glad such a course is undertaken. With regard to myself, I only mentioned the So. Boston paper, because Mrs. Stone wrote to me about that. I have spoken for the Massachusetts Suffrage Association, upon that question, a good many times within the past two years, and feel that I can always say something upon most aspects of the woman suffrage question. Mrs. Stone has often asked me to speak upon municipal suffrage because she liked my presentation of that subject – but some of the Somerville friends have very likely heard me speak upon it in Boston, and I would rather prefer myself to speak in a more general way. I have had some experience in regards to schools, having been teacher, mother, and school committee, and had some special advantages here in Quincy where educational matters have been much discussed, and I have been in the thick of it. How would you like as subject “The need of the feminine influence in the school, the town, and the state”? Or if that is too large – the first two leaving out the “state”? I think I could make some useful points in an address of that kind. But if there is any special branch of the suffrage, or woman question, which would be more desirable to you as a step in the unfolding of your scheme of lectures I think it would be safe enough for your President to announce it for me for the 23rd. I have studied the woman question all my life, and while I do not profess to have solved as great a problem, I feel pretty sure I can talk about most parts of it in a tolerably rational manner. I write thus because there is not time before Sunday for me to hear from you and write again as to subject, and I should like to meet the wishes of the committee in that respect. I should be glad to know how long an address is desired and whether it is to be in a parlor or a church, etc.
Very truly yours Adelaide A. Claflin, 21 Chestnut St., Qunicy
As an alternative subject I might suggest “The reaction of equal rights upon woman and society.” A.A.C.
Next is a letter from Lila M. Valentine to J. D. Eggleston, president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, from the Records of the Office of the President, Joseph Dupuy Eggleston (Record Group 2/7). Lila Meade Valentine was co-founder of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and served as its first president. Learn more about her at Encyclopedia Virginia.
The letter from Valentine reads:
Dr. J. D. Eggleston. April 2, 1915 Blacksburg, Va.
My dear [cousin?].
Can you arrange for me to speak any one of the following days, April 21, 22, 23, 24, 26? I am to help in the Pennsylvania campaign in ?? City April 28. I should greatly appreciate a prompt reply as I have several other invitations to fill in, and only wait your decision to readjust them because of your May 1st limit.
Cordially yours Lila M Valentine
P.S. I regret very much that you felt compelled to resign from our State Board of Education. We can ill afford to do without your valuable aid. L.M.V.
Finally, a letter from Eulalie Salley to Mrs. Francis Bear of Roanoke, Virginia, from the Eulalie Salley Letter (Ms2013-079). Salley was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1883 and lived on her grandparents’ plantation in Louisville, Georgia before moving to Aiken, South Carolina in 1892. Her education included a year each at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Around 1912, Salley organized the Aiken County Equal Suffrage League and served as its first president. She campaigned for suffrage by door-to-door canvassing, hosting fundraisers, and even dropping leaflets from an airplane. The end of this letter mentions her efforts to elect Gilbert McMillan to office in South Carolina and his role in South Carolina finally ratifying the 19th Amendment in 1969, 50 years after it became part of the U.S. Constitution. Learn more about Eulalie Salley in the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
The Eulalie Salley letter reads:
Eulalie Salley, Realtor Post Office Box 622 111 Park Avenue, S. W. Aiken, South Carolina 29801
January 12, 1974
Mrs. Francis Bear, “Bearcliff” 100 Etheridge Road, Roanoke, Virginia 24018
Dear Frances. I’m not at all surprised that your Mother did not tell you about my interest in politics. She and I are always so busy talking about members of the family that there is no time for anything else during her fleeting visits. In fact, most of our time is taken up with talk about that beautiful boy of yours.
I am so glad to know of your interest in politics. I’m wondering if you have joined the League of Women Voters or any other Woman’s organization in Roanoke. If not, you should, fo you would find it fasinating. I don’t see why you don’t begin right now to run for some public office—maybe by starting off with City Council or the State Legislature.
Here in Aiken we have a woman County Commissioner and a woman member of the South Carolina Lefislature. I campained for both of them, along with my faithful Gilbert McMillan. (Gilbert is a distant cousin of Louises’ husband, Raiford). He is the one who got the South Carolina legislature to ratify the Nineteenth amendment, a bill women had been working on for fifty years with no success.
Gilbert was a new commer and we decided we needed some one fresh in the Senate so 300 women got out and campained and elected him. It was very exciting.
It took me a long time to find out that if you wanted a law passed, you had better get your own man and get him to go to Columbia and pass it for you.
I hope Jody will do well in his school and I know you are going to be proud of him.
In addition to these materials, the Special Collections and University Archives exhibit also includes articles about women’s voting from the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1920, items from the New York Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and some suffrage cookbooks. If you get a chance to stop by the library while the exhibit is up, check it out to see everything on display. If you don’t make it in before 2021, the items are always available to view upon request.
It’s not all unusual to find a lot of history wrapped up in a single, small, seemingly inconspicuous document. Sometimes you have to go looking for the stories contained in such a document. On other occasions, the stories shout their presence, even if their fullness has yet to be discovered. The Republican Party Flyer of 1921 is one of those documents. For years, in classes, I’ve used this document, this collection—the one document is the entire collection—to demonstrate the simple notion that archival collections can be small, a single sheet of paper; or large, consisting of hundreds of boxes of material. I’d breeze through its historical significance on the way to explaining “finding aids” to students who had not yet encountered them, that being the real goal of that particular moment in class.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded to consider at greater length the history that passes through this ballot, this piece of newsprint—approximately ten inches tall and five inches wide—that names eight individuals, eight political offices, and eight cities and towns in Virginia. It is the first and only all-African American statewide party ticket in Virginia’s history. As such, it represents a significant moment in the history of African American involvement in and exclusion from Virginia politics. That story bears repeating, even if only in the cursory and incomplete fashion that follows, as appropriate to this blogpost.
Even before the end of the Civil War, African Americans in Norfolk organized to insist on their full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. In May 1865, over 1000 Black men of Norfolk attempted to take part in a local election. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, some did vote, but none of the votes were officially recorded and none of the winners took their offices. On 5 June, members of Norfolk’s Black community met with members of the Colored Monitor Union Club and agreed to a statement that was printed later that year under the title, Equal Suffrage. Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, VA., to the People of the United Sates. Also an Account of the Agitation Among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses Before the State Courts. The second paragraph of the Address states:
“We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.”1
It was not until the first Reconstruction Acts were passed by Congress in the spring of 1867 that the Southern states were required to hold conventions for the purpose of producing new state constitutions and to permit African American men to both vote for members of the conventions and to hold seats. When it came time to vote in Virginia on 22 October 1867, many white voters refused to vote and, as a result, supporters of radical reform of the state constitution won a majority of seats, including 24 African American men.2
The convention, sometimes referred to as the Underwood Convention, named for its presiding officer, the Radical Republican Federal judge John C. Underwood, was held between 3 December 1867 and 17 April 1868. Among the provisions of the new constitution was the granting of the right to vote to all male citizens who had reached the age of 21 and the disenfranchisement of men who supported the Confederacy. (Underwood had also argued in support of extending the franchise to women, but his argument failed.) By the time the new Constitution stood for and won ratification by popular vote on 6 July 1869, the measure to remove the voting rights of former confederates had been successfully separated as a distinct voting issue and was defeated. Elections for statewide officials and members of the General Assembly were also held. A Black candidate for lieutenant governor, Joseph D. Harris, lost, as did much of the radical Republican ticket, but thirty African American men won seats to the General Assembly, the first to win election to the Virginia legislature.
In the elections of 1871, ’73, and ’75, between eighteen and twenty African American candidates won election to the General Assembly. About one hundred Black Virginians served in either the Assembly or the Constitutional Convention between 1867 and 1895. Many more served in local office. Luther Porter Jackson’s 1945 study, Negro Office-holders in Virginia 1865–1895, offers a roster of these individuals, along with biographical notes and, in the case of those who served in the General Assembly, an analysis of their efforts to legislate towards achieving greater equality between the races.
In 1876, two amendments to the Constitution aimed at reducing the number of Black voters had been submitted by the Conservative Party and ratified statewide. These amendments introduced a poll tax and the disenfranchisement of individuals convicted of minor offenses, such as petty theft. In 1877, the number of African Americans in the General Assembly fell to eight and to four by 1889.
With the exception of the years at the end of the 1870s and early 1880s when the Readjusters (a biracial reform party formed in coalition with Republicans) held power, Virginia politics were completely under the control of the Conservatives, followed by a newly formulated Democratic Party, that is, by the parties of the white elite and of white supremacy. (The end of the Readjusters’ political power in the state is often regarded as having been signaled by the successful description by Democrats of an 1883 Danville street fight that ended in violence, as a race riot, with the Readjusters to blame.3) During the mid-1880s, with Democrats in charge, new laws were passed in Virginia, including the Anderson-McCormick Act of 1884, which made voting by Black men more difficult and successful runs for office by Black men rare. Other measures and practices had already appeared for the purpose of reducing the Black vote. By the time the Readjusters had been ousted, the White Republicans that remained increasingly became more doubtful of their own chances for political success as long as they were identified with African Americans or African American causes.
Virginia did send one Black congressman to Washington during this time, John Mercer Langston, who served one term from 1889 to 1891. The election was complicated, contested and, as a result, Langston only served the last seven months of his term. Part of the complication involved Langston splitting the Republican vote with a white Republican candidate who had been nominated at a separate convention that excluded Langston’s supporters. Only the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in a contest of many twists and turns resulted in Langston taking his seat. He represented the Fourth District, the only one in Virginia in which the African American population was greater than that of whites. By 1891 when Langston’s term ended in the U.S. House—he was not reelected—not one African American still served in either house of the Virginia legislature.
The passage of the 1894 Walton Act, introduced ostensibly to curtail corruption in election practice, had the otherwise intended effect of introducing a literacy test for voters. As such it was a measure to further guarantee the disenfranchisement of African Americans and a stepping stone toward calls for a new state constitution that would codify the dominance of the Democratic Party and the exclusion of Virginia’s African Americans from electoral politics and the exercise of political power. Writing in the online Encyclopedia Virginia, Brent Tarter writes:
“By the 1890s, a large proportion of black men and thousands of white Republicans in eastern Virginia were effectively disfranchised. Democrats regularly won overwhelming control of the General Assembly and most of the state’s congressional seats. During that decade, when the agrarian reform movement known as the Populist Movement threatened to rupture Democratic Party unity in Virginia, some Democrats employed the means by which they had contrived to win elections against Republicans to steal elections from other Democrats. The corruption led to enough demands for reform that a majority of the Democrats in the General Assembly passed a law in 1900 to hold a referendum on whether to summon a constitutional convention. A central objective of the supporters of the convention movement was to deprive African Americans of the suffrage and thereby eliminate the Democrats’ need to cheat in order to win.”4
One basis for that last, remarkable line may be the words of Alfred P. Gillespie, a Republican of Tazewell County, who said at the Constitutional Convention, which met in two sessions between 12 June 1901 and 26 June 1902:
“I have been taught to believe that where a man was guilty of a fraud, or of cheating another man, the man who committed the fraud should be punished, that a man who steals a vote should be punished. . . . The remedy suggested here is to punish the man who has been injured. It is now proposed to right a wrong by punishing those who have been defrauded of their votes to the extent of destroying their right of suffrage; in other words, the negro vote of this Commonwealth must be destroyed to prevent the Democratic election officers from stealing their votes, for it seems that, as long as there is a negro vote to be stolen, there will be a Democratic election officer ready to steal it.”5
When asked if discrimination was at the core of the proposed suffrage article of the new constitution, Carter Glass of Lynchburg, a member of the committee charged with producing that article, said, “Why, that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what the Convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution, with a view to elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”6
The Constitution that would have the effect of disenfranchising approximately 90% of the previously eligible Black voters, not to mention about 50 % of whites,7 was not put to the voters of Virginia for approval. Instead, having been adopted by the Convention, it was, following judicial challenges, ruled to be “the only rightful, valid, and existing constitution in the State” by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia on 18 June 1903 and to have been legally in effect since 10 July 1902. The Constitution of 1902 was the legal elevation of the Jim Crow South in Virginia. It marked the achievement of the effort to turn back voting rights for African Americans that had begun as soon as those rights were obtained. It was the legal counterpart to the acts of intimidation and violence that accompanied that effort (and are beyond the scope of this overly-long blogpost) and laid the legal groundwork for the continued culture of intimidation and segregation that would follow. A few numbers:
— In the Presidential election of 1900, 264,240 Virginians voted; in 1904, the number was 135,865 — The Republican percentage of Virginia’s vote in the 1900 Presidential election was 43.8%; in 1904, it was 35.2% — In 1900, 147,000 Black Virginians registered to vote; in 1904, about 21,000 tried to register and fewer than half qualified8
As Southern Democrats reasserted control over the political process to remove African Americans, White Republicans responded to their need to reassert claims to their own political relevance by seeking increased support from White southerners and throwing off the Democrats’ claim that the Republican Party was the “Party of the Negro.” One form of this effort among Republicans was the formation of what became known as the Lily-White movement. Although it can be said to have officially started in Texas in 1886, the movement and the name spread throughout the South. In Virginia, the decline in the percentage of Black delegates sent to the Republican national conventions is one measure: from a high in 1872 of 44.1% the percentage dropped to 23.2% in 1888, 9.8% in 1904, and 0% in 1920.9 In July 1921, white delegates to the Republican state convention in Norfolk, which would determine the slate of statewide candidates, refused to seat almost all Black delegates who had been elected to participate and prohibited all Black spectators from attending. This, then, is some of the context out of which the Republican Party ballot of 1921 (remember that?) arose.
The convention in Norfolk nominated Henry W. Anderson, a lily-white Republican, as candidate for governor. Part of his platform was to attempt to remove questions of race from the contest with Democrats by claiming to be every bit a white supremacist as they. (Of course, the Democrats didn’t see it that way.) In opposition to the lily-white Republicans and claiming to be the true representatives of the Republican Party, an alternate convention was called and held in Richmond on 5 September 1921 with approximately 600 Black delegates attending.
The result was the formation of Virginia’s only statewide, all-African American ticket, which became known as the lily-black ticket, the slate represented on the ballot we have in Special Collections. The convention had been championed by the Richmond Planet, the city’s weekly African American newspaper. The paper’s longtime editor, John Mitchell, Jr. was chosen to head the ticket as candidate for Governor. Mitchell had served on the Richmond Common Council from 1888 to 1896 and, as editor of the Planet, had earned a reputation for his fight against the 1901 Constitutional Convention, his efforts against lynching, and as an advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Mitchell did not use the name lily-black to describe the ticket.
Perhaps the person best known today on the ticket is Maggie L. Walker, candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Also a resident of Richmond, Walker became a candidate for statewide office about a year after women gained the right to vote nationally with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Note that Virginia’s General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until 1952.) She is often noted as being the first Black woman in the country to establish and become president of a bank, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, chartered in 1903. A year earlier, she founded the St. Luke Herald newspaper, through which she supported women’s suffrage, equal educational opportunities for African American children, and fought against segregation and lynching. In 1905 she helped to establish the Saint Luke Emporium, a department store owned and run by African Americans for the African American community. Her house in Richmond was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
Theodore Nash, from Portsmouth, was candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Joseph Thomas Newsome, graduate of Howard University Law School, leading attorney, and community leader from Newport News was the candidate for Attorney-General. Thomas E. Jackson, candidate for Treasurer from Staunton, was manager of the Staunton Reporter and an officer of the People’s Dime Savings Bank. Francis V. Bacchus, a pharmacist in Lynchburg, was the choice for Secretary of the Commonwealth. J. L. Reed of Roanoke and A.P. Brickhouse of Exmore were the candidates for Corporation Commissioner and Commissioner of Agriculture, respectively.
There were no expectations that the ticket would be successful and there was not much of a campaign. Brent Tarter describes the campaign as “quixotic” and reports that Mitchell not only did not campaign, but that he took a vacation prior to the election.10 It was a mostly symbolic protest that failed to capture not only the Republican vote, but the Black vote, as well. Plummer Bernard Young, editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a rival of Mitchell’s Planet, for example, was offered the nomination for Lieutenant Governor, declined, and did not support the ticket. Outside of the Black press, it received very little attention. John Mitchell received 5,036 votes in an election in which the victor, Democrat E. Lee Trinkle received 139,416. Henry Anderson, the lily-white Republican had 65,833 votes. In her contest, Maggie Walker received 6,991 votes out of 208,576 cast in the state.
But this ballot represents a kind of courage that is significant and should be noted. This single sheet of paper can’t be dismissed as a mere historical object of protest, but seen as representing an act of bravery that emerged from a history that includes much bravery in the face of repression, injustice, and violence. More than that, it speaks to a kind of bravery in the political sphere, in the realm of electoral politics that seems so relevant today, as, admittedly—let’s face it—it always is.
If you grew up knowing all of this history, forgive me for repeating it, even at this length. I’m fairly well-informed on matters concerning Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but not having grown up in Virginia or ever read deeply into the political history of the state, I’ve missed some of the details. Maybe you have, too. And the details matter. The Constitution of 1902 remained in effect until 1971, for example.
I was asked to include the Republican Party Flyer of 1921 in a conversation with students a few weeks ago to draw attention to the season in which we now find ourselves, and to use it, if obliquely, as a reminder to VOTE. (With a shoutout to Danna Agmon! Thanks!)
So, remember . . . and remember to VOTE!
— — — — — —
CODA:This post has led me to recall another run for office, perhaps also a little too forgotten today, but every bit as significant and courageous. Ultimately, Shirley Chisholm, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the New York 12th and a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, won 151 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, but lost to Senator George McGovern.
Earlier posts exploring Beverly Willis’s work can be found here and here. As those posts dealt with a residential renovation and the adaptation of technology to large-scale housing developments, this post is concerned with urban design of public spaces.
In 1978 Beverly Willis, noted architect, artist, and photographer, was commissioned to rehabilitate a public space and pre-existing playground that serves the Laguna and Golden Gate neighborhoods of San Francisco. Her charge was to design and construct a small recreation building on this site, a two-block plot that already housed tennis courts, play structures, and a small storehouse. As discussed in the posts mentioned above, Willis’s design philosophy is heavily influenced by symbolic imagery. Indeed, in her book Invisible Images, she discusses her fascination with the power of images at length: their capacity to generate ideas, to captivate us, to contextualize architecture and ultimately to connect humans to nature. But here she also took her primary audience into account, namely children, and thus considered how young people on the threshold of young adulthood might interpret spaces and images differently than their grown-up counterparts.
When conceptualizing a small building for the park, she wanted to evoke and foster the idea of play, and to frame the building as an invitation to play. She designed what she characterized as a “toy” building, which served the dual purpose of sparking children’s imaginations and enabling other functions, i.e., serving as an administrator office, restroom, and a service kitchen for park events. It serves a host of functional needs while it also works with the idiosyncrasies of the site.
As Willis wanted the building to feel fully integrated with the rest of the block, the building’s segmented design allowed the small structure to sprawl and fan out, creating a pavilion that descended via concrete steps to the play pit. The way it’s structured gives it the slight feeling of a dais. She designed an asymmetrical wall at an angle from the building with a child-sized arch such that there would be some fluidity between the practical and playful elements of the park. No doubt, the building exploits an unusual, exploded structure (akin to something you’d see in an axonometric drawing) to maximize its magical, whimsical appeal.
I’ll leave you with Bev’s own words:
“I designed the building to be lower in height than the tallest play equipment—like a toy building. The structure fans out of its tight corner site, and diagonal walls shift through the structure, like the joints of the armadillo shell. The façade stops at a wide walkway, bordered by three tiered steps. Together, these elements create an illusion of a stage platform. On the right wing ‘stage’ wall, which extends past the building, I placed an arched opening that leads nowhere but beckons the young to pass through and explore. The painted arch opening and circular moon above are as magical as Alice’s looking glass, leading from everywhere to everywhere” (Willis 87).
Willis, Beverly. Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture. National Building Museum, 1997.
Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure
Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.
Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet, Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:
Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.
Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.
(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)
Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.
Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)
Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.
Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:
Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,
And as I says Good-bye
to every one,
And since I takes
most painful care
Of all my boys
throughout the year,
It seems to me most
Dat I should be right
De folks of all dese
friends of mine
And gib’ a greetin’
which dey’ll find,
Dat dough dey lib’ to
be past forty,
Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”
According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when, due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:
Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.
The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:
No matter where roams
Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;
He ponders on the
long ago, though often rough the sailing.
The strife is long,
the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,
But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.
A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.
Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).
It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school, and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.