Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemanicpation Virginia

By Jelks, Randall Maurice | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemanicpation Virginia


Jelks, Randall Maurice, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia. By Jane Dailey. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. 278; $39.95, cloth; $17.95, paper.)

Valuable lessons are sometimes learned from failure. Jane bailey's history of post emancipation politics in Virginia between 1877 and 1883, as told through the "Readjusters," an interracial political coalition that cut across wide segments-dissident white Democrats, black Republicans, rural and urban dwellers of the state-is an exemplary example of this type of historical analysis.

Dailey traces the inception of the Readjusters to a series of post war issues-the state's indebtedness, the break away and formation of West Virginia, the immediate assertions of civic freedoms by African Americans, and the controversial issue of statewide funding for public schooling. Her aims in this are book twofold. First she "is concerned chiefly with how Virginians formed ideas about race and these ideas functioned politically within a specific context." The social landscape in the aftermath of the war was filled with "tension between, on the one hand, attempts to establish white supremacy, to remove African Americans from participation in the body politic, and, on the other hand the struggle to build cross-race political coalitions" (p. 5). Dailey demonstrates how these political cross currents came into an unlikely coalition around the issue of debt and the public education. Her other aim in this book is to enhance the historian C. Van Woodward's thesis on Jim Crow, which argued that there was a great deal of fluidity between whites and blacks before the hardening of the formal laws of Jim Crow in the 1880s. She wants to show the specific social context of "political liberalism" and how factors such as race, class, and gender were understood from the ground up.

From the outset, bailey describes a fragile coalition of reformers banding together on the need for public education. African Americans and white Virginians from diverse areas of the state were desirous of public education that the state government had initiated. From all white areas in the state to the areas with the heaviest concentrations of blacks, each respective group saw that statewide public education would enhance their community's lot. On the other hand, shortly after the war's cessation, the old political and economic elite, the planter class, struggled to regain state political power. They wanted to pay off the state's indebtedness and cut the increasing cost of public education. In fact, as bailey points out, many of the old elite did not believe in universal access to a state funded public education. The political infighting over the debt versus the funding of public schools must be contextualized inside the national and state constitutional battle over the 15th Amendment that gave suffrage rights to African American males. The African American communities of Virginia were impatient and far more radical in their demand for their political rights. If left to the devices of the political conservatism of the old elite, the civic freedoms and political opportunities of African Americans would have been severely circumscribed in the immediate post war political reformulations. However, in order to be accepted back into the national union, the political rights of African Americans had to be acknowledged in the state's new constitution. African American political leaders would not accept anything less than full male suffrage. These fissures from the end of the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction in 1877 were constant in Virginia political life.

A central irony in the Readjusters coalition was the leadership of William Mahone-an ex-slaveholder, a supporter of secession, a former Confederate army officer, and an advisor to General Robert E. Lee. Mahone was not only suspicious in regards to his past political association; his actions as the commanding officer at the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia were infamous. …

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