A Ballot of Significance: A Virginia Republican Party Ticket from 1921

Republican Party Flyer of 1921
Republican Party Flyer of 1921

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

State Convention at Richmond from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 15 February 1868
State Convention at Richmond from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 15 February 1868

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.

Title page of Luther Porter Jackson's Negro Office Holders in Virginia 1865-1895
Title page of Luther Porter Jackson’s Negro Office Holders in Virginia 1865-1895

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.

African American members of Virginia's General Assembly, 1887-88; as pictured in Jackson
African American members of Virginia’s General Assembly, 1887-88; as pictured in Jackson, Negro Office Holders

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.

John Mercer Langston
John Mercer Langston, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.

Front page, Richmond Planet, 10 September 1921
Front page, Richmond Planet, 10 September 1921

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.

John Mitchell, Jr. as pictured in Jackson
John Mitchell, Jr. as pictured in Jackson, Negro Office Holders
Maggie L. Walker
Maggie L. Walker

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. 

Joseph Thomas Newsome of Newport News
Joseph Thomas Newsome of Newport News

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.

Republican Party Flyer of 1921
Republican Party Flyer of 1921

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!

 

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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.

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Notes
1. See Equal Suffrage. Address . . . , viewed 15 October 2020.
2. For more information, see Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia, African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902), https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/african_americans_and_politics_in_virginia_1865-1902 , viewed 15 October 2020
3. Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia, African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902), https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/african_americans_and_politics_in_virginia_1865-1902 , viewed 16 October 2020
4.Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia. Disfranchisement, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Disfranchisement. viewed 24 October 2020
5. Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, 2 vols. (Richmond, 1906), 2:3014. Quoted in Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 326
6. Repot of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, State of Virginia, Held in the City of Richmond June 12, 1901 to June 26, 1902 )2 vols; Richmond, 1906), vol. II, p. 3076–3077. Quoted in Edwards, Conley L., “A political history of the poll tax in Virginia, 1900-1950” (1973). Master’s Theses. Paper 452, University of Richmond, p.9
7. Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 328
8. Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia. Disfranchisement, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Disfranchisement. viewed 24 October 2020
9. Heersink, Boris and Jeffery A. Jenkins. “Black-and-Tans vs. Lily-Whites: Measuring the Racial Composition of Republican Party Organizations in the South after Reconstruction, 1868–1952,” Table 2, p. 35. Version of paper presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537e687fe4b0cabbb8f9d767/t/57fac46a6a496306c83ce67c/1476052078780/Heersink+and+Jenkins+-+Black+and+Tans+versus+Lily+Whites.pdf. Viewed 25 October 2020. See also: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537e687fe4b0cabbb8f9d767/t/55410556e4b055af09d58f78/1430324566391/Heersink-Jenkins+MPSA+paper.pdf
10. Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 329