You know the old joke about how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb: Five. One to talk about the bulb and four to talk about how much better the old one was.
If there’s one thing we like to do, it’s talking about our history. Virginia started the official planning for 2007 events that marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown 11 years beforehand. Virginia started the planning for the 2019 events that marked the 400th anniversary of the first legislative assembly and the first African-Americans six years ahead of time. That means we’re past due to start planning for another anniversary coming our way: 2022 will mark the 120th anniversary of Virginia’s constitution of 1902.
That year, and that event, may not have the immediate resonance of the others, but it was a momentous watershed in Virginia history nonetheless, one whose echoes are still being heard today every time a Confederate monument falls.
Here’s the short version for why Virginia should hold some official recognition — a somber, mournful one — of that now-repealed constitution. That 1902 constitution attempted to snuff out democracy in Virginia. The fact that most people today don’t know that is a result of state-sponsored propaganda in the form of school textbooks that even into the 1970s taught Virginia schoolchildren that the 1902 constitution was a “good and practical” document that replaced its previous “undesirable” constitution.
This was, quite simply, a lie. Much of politics is debatable so we are always hesitant to call things lies. But this was a lie — a racist lie at that.
Here’s what we weren’t taught in school: In 1867, Virginia began drafting a post-Civil War constitution as part of the process of being restored to the Union. The convention that wrote it was unlike anything Virginia had ever seen. Of the 104 delegates, 24 were African-Americans — most of them newly-freed slaves. Chairing the convention was John Underwood, a federal judge from Clarke County who before the war was such a strong opponent of slavery that he was forced to flee the state by a vigilante mob led by Turner Ashby, whose name now graces a high school in Rockingham County.
That constitution — which voters ratified in 1869 — was a remarkably progressive document. It guaranteed the right to vote to both black and white men (Underwood wanted to go further and allow women to vote but was defeated). It created a public school system, and mandated both attendance and state funding. It introduced democracy to local government, by creating elected boards of supervisors in counties. Previously, county governments had been administered by judges.
With an expanded electorate, Virginia proceeded to elect governments that were quite progressive for their day. In the 1880s, with the Readjusters (a local variant of Republicans) in charge, the state abolished the poll tax and the whipping post. The Readjusters increased funding for schools. Under the Readjusters, the state founded Virginia State University to train Black teachers. The Readjusters created the first mental hospital for Black Virginians — what today is Central State in Petersburg. They appointed Blacks to state offices and pushed for integrated juries. This proved entirely too much progress for some. A conservative backlash swept the Readjusters out of office and installed Democrats instead. They proceeded to start passing what today we know as “Jim Crow” laws. Still, they could only go so far because the state constitution allowed Black men to vote. Their fix: A new state constitution.
That came in 1902. The dominant political figure at that constitutional convention was Carter Glass of Lynchburg. Glass was quite plain what the goal was: “…to eliminate the darkey as a force in Virginia politics.” We apologize for the language but it was the language of the times and is necessary to convey exactly what was going on. “Discrimination!,” Glass declared. “Why, that is precisely what we propose. That, exactly, is what this Convention was elected for — to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limits of the federal Constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of legally.”
By that standard, the 1902 constitution was a success. It disenfranchised Blacks and whites alike, especially those who previously had the temerity to vote for Republicans. Many of those disenfranchised white voters were in Southwest Virginia, then as now a Republican stronghold. Glass and others had promised to put the new constitution to a vote but then reneged. They knew better than to ask voters to disenfranchise themselves. Instead, they simply “proclaimed” the new constitution, a kind of legal coup that the Virginia Supreme Court upheld and which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn. Here’s one way to measure the impact: That constitution cut the number of voters in Virginia in half — 264,208 Virginians voted in the 1900 presidential election, but only 130,410 in 1904. In fact, Virginia had a smaller percentage of adults registered to vote than any other state. Our textbooks never mentioned that part. Instead, they taught that “the constitution of 1902 has pleased the people of Virginia so well today [that] it remains the supreme law of the state.” It certainly pleased the state’s white conservative establishment, which was able to consolidate power. Through much of the 20th century Virginia was only superficially a democracy. It took the social upheavals of the 1960s to change that. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded the electorate, which helped Republican Linwood Holton win the governorship in 1969 and usher in a two-party democracy. He was the one who ordered the propaganda-laden textbooks retired. And Virginia finally replaced that 1902 constitution in 1971.
It’s often pointed out that the most prominent Confederate monuments around Virginia were erected during that long period of social retrenchment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The monuments were merely symbols, though. The constitution of 1902 was the legal framework by which Virginia was able to repeal the progress it made after the Civil War and impose a new and discriminatory legal order to exclude many of the state’s citizens. Virginia clearly missed the 100th anniversary but should not let the 120th anniversary pass without the opportunity to talk about it. There is no statue of Glass to tear down so we are spared that debate. But we could put up one of Underwood, the man whose work Glass obliterated and whose good name Virginia has yet to restore.