By Brendan Wolfe
With Election Day 1883 quickly approaching, politics were heating up in Danville. In October a group of white businessmen printed a broadside that blasted the Readjuster Party, which controlled both houses of the General Assembly and the Danville City council. The Readjusters represented a reform-minded coalition of farmers and working men, Democrats and Republicans, whites and African Americans. But it was the party’s embrace of black men, in particular, that upset the merchants of Danville. Posting the broadside around town, they complained loudly of “the injustice and humiliation to which our white people have been subjected and are daily undergoing by the domination and misrule of the radical or negro party.”
Then, on the Friday before statewide elections, the white chairman of the local Readjuster Party denounced the broadside in a street-corner oration witnessed mostly by an audience of African Americans. The next day, a white man bumped into a black man on the sidewalk, tempers flared, and the violence that resulted ended in the gun deaths of at least five people. It also arguably changed Virginia politics forever. White politicians blamed the violence on blacks and used it to force them from power. Within a few yeas the Readjuster Party had disappeared.
“Race, especially, has been a big issue in this year’s presidential election,” explains Matthew Gibson, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), a project of VFH. “So remembering the Danville Riot is important, especially as Election Day comes around again.” Gibson says that what’s even more important is understanding the broader story of African Americans in Virginia in the years after the Civil War. The encyclopedia is finishing work on “From Freedom to Disfranchisement,” a three-year NEH-funded grant in partnership with the Library of Virginia. “The entries we’re creating tell a story that’s not widely enough known,” says Gibson. “Millions of African Americans were emancipated in 1865 and given the vote. By 1901, almost all of them had lost that vote. What happened in those intervening years?”
The Danville Riot, for starters. The EV entry allows users to read that broadside in order to understand just how anxious white Danvillians were in the face of African American political equality. It also details the infamous street fight, offering links to the testimony of various eyewitnesses, and the efforts to blame blacks for the violence and to use fear to suppress subsequent African American voter turnout. Encyclopedia users can read a story about the violence in the Richmond Daily Dispatch. “These negroes [in Danville] had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town,” the paper’s editors wrote. “They have been taught a lesson.”
“The story of disfranchisement is not the story of misrule,” Gibson says. “That was the line for many years from historians, but it’s not true. In the years after emancipation white elites in Virginia fought to reestablish the political and social dominance they had lost during the war. Danville is the perfect illustration. Disfranchisement is really the story of white supremacy.”
The encyclopedia has published entries that follow the arc of freedom to disfranchisement. With the help of editors at the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography, these entries include the biographies of nearly all the African American members of the assembly. There are accounts of the abolition of slavery in Virginia, the role of black churches, the political parties, and important laws and court cases—all leading up to the Constitution of 1902, the provisions of which nearly eliminated African Americans as a relevant factor in the state’s politics. Most recently, entries have been published on the establishment of public schools and of lynching. Numerous primary documents and media objects round out the encyclopedia’s coverage, which Gibson says is a vital tool for students, educators, and lifelong learners.
“Who we are today, in Virginia and across the United States, is so much a product of this time period,” says Gibson. “The good and the not so good. It’s all there and we need to find ways not to forget.”