For a short time following the Civil War, African-Americans in the state of Virginia were granted the right to run for office and vote for delegates under the new reconstruction law. Freed slaves in Hampton lined up from sun-up to sundown at the polls to vote. In 1867, 92 percent of eligible freed blacks voted that year for the 24 black delegates on the ballot. Only 66 percent of the voters were white.
The diversity of the delegates was surprising for the time period. There were 17 farmers, 16 ministers, 9 shoemakers, 8 teachers, 6 lawyers, 3 blacksmiths, 2 brickmasons and a boatman. One of the delegates was Haitian and bilingual.
Many of the voting practices we use today were established during the time that black delegates pressed to change the rules. Those include voting by secret ballot, which eliminated oral voting. Back then, voter intimidation was strongly discouraged. Interestingly, the first arguments were raised for racially integrated school systems in the state of Virginia.
Among the strong delegates were men like Dr. Thomas Bayne, a former slave, minister and dentist who was a favorite for office among blacks. Bayne was a former conductor of the Underground Railroad and in favor of the state tax reform. It was Bayne that pressed for school integration. He finished ahead of three white candidates in the 1867 election.
Another delegate was Miles Connor, a farmer who many blacks sought for literacy purposes. Connor could read and write so many went to him for correspondence assistance. Connor’s platform was racial equality, establishment of fraternities and education reform. Connor served from 1875-1877.
The Hodges family had three family members in the Assembly: Charles Hodges, William Hodges and John Hodges. The men were born free but helped slaves escape via Underground Railroad until they were discovered by patrols. They fled to New York where they worked as abolitionists before returning to Virginia. Collectively the Hodges’ delegates worked for the black community of Virginia, lobbying for fishing and hunting areas for the freed blacks and establishing schools in the community.
African-American voters never held the majority so the presence of delegates slowly declined. By 1890, there were no longer black delegates in the Assembly. Shortly following the elimination, laws were placed to ensure blacks lost their voting power and Jim Crow set in throughout the country. It wasn’t until 1967 that blacks were back in office for elections.
If upcoming planning efforts hold, two plaques will be hung in the Virginia State Capitol to commemorate the brief yet strong voting period of blacks in Virginia, mid-19th century.