Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Black Republicans in the Virginia Tobacco Fields, 1867-70

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Black Republicans in the Virginia Tobacco Fields, 1867-70

Article excerpt

105,832 freedmen registered to vote for 1867 Virginia election. 93,145 freedmen (88%) voted in the 1867 Virginia election.

Historian Richard Lowe

Of all [the] ridiculous and mischievous legislating, that of giving an ignorant, uninformed class of people the right to vote and the chance of being set over the whites of the land, takes the lead.

Former Mistress Sarah P. Miller

I'd rather pay a high tax upon land and work it myself than to work for other people for nothing.

Representative Frank Moss

During the first two agricultural seasons after Appomattox, the struggle over emancipation between former masters and former slaves was largely confined to the socioeconomic terrain. Former masters and new employers attempted to impose traditional forms of labor management and Negro control. The freedmen resisted these older forms in their search for autonomy and its safeguards through access to land, control over work time, judicious compensation, and the reconstruction of family life away from coerced agricultural production. Meanwhile, the federal government, represented by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau), attempted to implement a new system of republican free labor relations with property in men replaced by property in labor based upon legal contractual obligations between employers and employees. Both the 1865 and 1866 agricultural seasons had reaped a harvest of struggle over the dispensation of the fruits of free labor exacerbated by bumper crops of tobacco and cereal grains. The seeds of class struggle over emancipation between past masters and dispossessed freedmen were scattered far and wide. In the spring of 1867, these seeds, watered by the Freedmen's Bureau, were to prematurely burst forth into political bud. (1)

Between the founding of Jamestown and victory at Yorktown, Virginia was an important English colony. The three generations following independence saw the flowering of a political culture inbued with a Jeffersonian republicanism of sturdy independent yeomen, slaveholding legislators and Presidents, all of whom played an influential role in regional and national politics. The Civil War was to change all this. During the conflict itself, the Old Dominion was tom between secessionist western counties which gained independent statehood as West Virginia in 1863, a unionist northern section around the government of Francis N. Pierpont in Alexandria, and the proto-national tendencies of the Confederate States of America headquartered in Rich mond. With the Confederacy's defeat at Appomattox, the state's independence was further undermined by the presence of an occupying federal power. Although Virginia never actually experienced radical reconstruction, its politics were far from independent for the remainder of the d ecade. Its executive leadership, whether antithetical to reconstruction like Governors Francis H. Pierpont (1865-68) and Gilbert C. Walker (1869), or sympathetic such as Governor Henry H. Wells (1868-69), remained accountable to federal authorities. President Johnson, for instance, recognized the Whig unionist government of Pierpont, while Virginia's military commander Major General John M. Schofield temporarily replaced Pierpont with the Michigan lawyer and unionist soldier Wells. (2)

The postbellum state legislature was similarly influenced by the federal authorities. Although conservative control remained intact throughout the period, the General Assembly was repeatedly forced to deal with federal power especially the military. In January, 1866, the General Assembly's passage of a Vagrancy Act designed to control freedmen's mobility was almost immediately terminated by the state military commander for being too draconian. The legislature's new contract laws between employers and former slaves for topdown control of labor relations was subsequently revised and appropriated by the Freedmen's Bureau for implementing a more equitable free labor system. …

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