This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most shameful political events in Virginia history, one that has repercussions to this day.
In 1921, Virginia Republicans purged Black voters from their ranks. Virginia Republicans weren’t alone. Republicans across the South were doing the same thing, in a failed bid to make themselves more acceptable to white voters.
Much context is in order: Before the Civil War, Democrats were the dominant party in the South. The Republican candidates for president weren’t even on Southern ballots in 1856 and 1860. After the Civil War, newly enfranchised Black voters were naturally loyal to “the party of Lincoln.” The Handbook of Texas says that in that state Black voters accounted for 90% of the Republican vote in the 1880s.
In Virginia, the percentage was likely lower because there was an alliance between Black voters and white voters west of the Blue Ridge who never had much attachment to the state’s political establishment in Richmond. For a time in the 1880s, that Republican coalition won control of state government (under the banner of the Readjuster Party) and initiated a series of reforms that were quite progressive for their day: The Republicans-by-another-name abolished the poll tax. They abolished the whipping post. They funded Black schools. They founded Virginia State University to train Black teachers. They hired Black applicants for state jobs.
That produced a conservative backlash that saw Democrats — then a conservative party in the South — regain power and set about trying to restrict Black voters as much as possible. This movement culminated with Virginia’s infamous 1902 constitution — Carter Glass of Lynchburg was the dominant force behind it — that set out to disenfranchise as many Black voters as possible (along with lots of poor whites west of the Blue Ridge, as well). That constitution cut the number of voters in Virginia in half. In fact, Virginia had a smaller percentage of adults registered to vote than any other state, and they were almost exclusively white. But not entirely. Some Black voters still managed to comply with all the onerous rules — poll taxes that were due months in advance, literacy tests that registrars could tailor to each voter depending on their whims. And those voters were overwhelming Republican.
Republicans trying to compete in the South came to consider their Black supporters a hindrance. All Democrats had to do was accuse their Republican opponents of being “the party of the Negro” and that was that. Across the South, Republicans decided the best way to become competitive with white voters was to throw out their Black supporters. This “lily-white movement,” as it was called, began in Texas in 1888. In 1902, the same year Virginia was adopting its disenfranchisement constitution, Republicans in North Carolina purged Black voters from their ranks. By waiting until 1921, Virginia Republicans were late to the process, but they got there nonetheless.
The occasion was the 1921 governor’s race. Richmond lawyer Henry Anderson ran on a platform that called for “an exclusively white Republican Party in Virginia.” Despite that, the Republican platform that year was otherwise quite liberal — in favor of unions and more funding for roads and schools. The parties have realigned a lot since then.
Unsurprisingly, Black Republicans weren’t happy about being ousted. They formed what they called a “Lily Black” ticket of Black candidates led by John Mitchell Jr., a Richmond banker and editor of The Richmond Planet newspaper. Maggie Walker, the famed Richmond banker, ran state superintendent of public instruction, then an elected office. Women had just gained the right to vote the year before; Walker was one of three Virginians who became the first women to seek statewide office that year (socialist Lillie Davis Custis of Accomac County ran for governor and Republican Elizabeth Otey of Lynchburg also ran for the education post). Near as we can tell, Mitchell and Walker may have also been the first Black candidates to seek statewide office in Virginia.
The Republican effort to distance themselves from Black voters didn’t help at the ballot box. Democrat E. Lee Trinkle of Wytheville won in a landslide as Democrats always did then. Anderson polled 31% of the vote, which was actually a few percentage points lower than what some previous Republican candidates for governor had polled. Mitchell took 2.4%; Custis less than 1%.
It’s important to note that the “lily-white” movement was confined to Southern Republicans. Nationally, Black voters remained Republican voters. It’s estimated that Calvin Coolidge took 90% of the Black vote when he ran for president in 1924 and was considered modestly in favor of what accounted for civil rights in those days. He proposed federal funds to establish a medical school at Howard University. When some whites protested because Republicans had nominated a Black dentist to run for Congress in Harlem, Coolidge issued a stern rebuke, saying such complaints “could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party.” Tiffany Tolliver, a Black Roanoke business owner, was one of Coolidge’s informal advisers on racial matters.
It was Herbert Hoover in 1928 who started moving the party away from Black voters. He was hoping to peel off some Southern states from Democratic nominee Al Smith — whose Catholicism was considered an obstacle for conservative voters. As part of his Southern strategy, Hoover refused to even be photographed with Black leaders, lest that offend white Southern sensibilities. Hoover’s inattention, the Great Depression and the subsequent New Deal realigned Black voters into the Democratic column. Ironically, it was Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction — Linwood Holton of Roanoke, elected in 1969 — who was truly the state’s first civil rights governor. For a fleeting moment in time, he put together the same coalition of Black voters and western whites who had elected the Readjusters in the 1880s. But nationally, Richard Nixon had settled on his own Southern strategy that has led to today’s political alignments. The arc of history is long and the Republican “lily white” purge of 1921 is one of the points that brought us to where we are today.