"But My Friends Are Poor": Ross Hamilton and Freedpeople's Politics in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, 1869-1901

Article excerpt

by HAROLD S. FORSYTHE*

THROUGH the medium of this single letter on a personal subject, from among some forty that Ross Hamilton sent Republican party leader William Mahone, we can glimpse Hamilton as freedpeople in the Southside would have known him. Here he reveals his grief, his anxiety, his pride, and his multifaceted sense of duty. Hamilton served more terms in Virginia's legislature than any other African American in the nineteenth century. He appears to have maintained a remarkably independent course; he opposed both Conservatives and Readjusters on the debt question during the early 1880s. No campaign was waged in the Old Dominion in the 1870s and 1880s without some reference to what "Ross" would do and whom he would support. Yet what is now generally known of him-and many more like him-is neatly encapsulated in only ten lines, with a photograph, in the most recent standard reference work.2

Who was Ross Hamilton? How did he accumulate so much power in a Southside plantation county? How did he maintain his seat in the General Assembly and his political influence in the region for so long? How did he resurrect a political career that seemed terminated in 1883? Who were his friends, and what did he mean when he asserted that they were "poor"? The answers to these questions will certainly expand Hamilton's biography. More important, however, the exploration of his political and social associations should contribute to a more comprehensive picture of how freedpeople's politics functioned during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Hamilton was a leader, perhaps the most influential political leader in Mecklenburg County during his era. He sought to take his daughter's remains "home" to Boydton. His life, and the story of his political career, are inseparable from that of the rural freedpeople back home in Mecklenburg and the bordering tobacco counties of the Southside.

Ross Hamilton was born into slavery in 1838 or 1839, in Mecklenburg County. He acquired training as a carpenter and presumably followed that trade in slavery as he did later in freedom. He also owned a store in Boydton, the county seat. Hamilton was literate, but painfully aware of his rudimentary education, he usually engaged others to write for him. In addition to shrewdly accumulated plots of land, Hamilton had acquired by 1871 two draft animals valued at $100, three head of cattle, worth $20, five $2 hogs, two conveyances valued at $65, and $20 worth of household goods. He was, by the standards of freedpeople so soon after emancipation, well off.3

Ross Hamilton, his son, Robert, and his friend, Leander Read, were all registered voters in the Boydton magisterial district in 1869; another friend, Watkins L. "Watt" Love, was registered elsewhere in the county. It is almost certain that they were instrumental in the overwhelming majorities Sanford M. Dodge and John Watson, a freedman cobbler, garnered from freedmen in the 1867 election to the state constitutional convention (these candidates received just one white vote apiece, probably Dodge's). Indeed, in 1867 Love, with Watson and others, led a massive procession-almost certainly an emancipation celebration, because the marshals were mounted, wore white sashes, and carried batons-that was "graced by the United States flag." After the parade, Love and the others made political speeches. Watson's nearly uncontested election to the House of Delegates in 1869 appears also to have been Hamilton's handiwork, not least because, upon Watson's sudden death that same year, Hamilton swept into the seat in a special election and held it firmly until the early 1880s.4

Hamilton and most of the post-emancipation political leaders among Virginia's freedpeople were entirely overlooked when the Freedmen's Bureau tasked itself in March 1867 to find six freedmen in each county "in whom both races have confidence and who have the most influence over their own people." The lists were sent by agents from all over Virginia to Assistant Commissioner Orlando Brown's headquarters in Richmond. …