1902

The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1902 encompassed the political atmosphere at a state level and also served as a reflection of national political values in America at the turn of the century. John Mitchell’s passionately furious tone reveals how significant the escalation of race relation issues was at the time. Mitchell gives insight into how African Americans felt about the unjust debates of the convention and shows what type of resistance they were able to present.

At the turn of the century, a call by the Democrats demanded government and election reforms for the state government of Virginia. This elite class of politicians voted on an assembly of delegates to rewrite the fundamental law of Virginia, specifically focusing on reform for the election process. Its main goal, above all else, was to restrict suffrage for African American voters without technically violating the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, a policy known as disenfranchisement. Some Republicans and illiterate white men feared that they would lose voting rights by a policy that would unintentionally impede them as well; however, white delegates stressed that they would do whatever in their power to ensure that they only restricted black voting rights. Mitchell and The Planet solely, andironically, referred to the state convention as the “unconstitutional Constitutional Convention” and boldly described this group of delegates as “negro-haters,” demonstrating that the black community would not take a passive stance against this proposed legislation.

A January article, “Still Blundering,” questioned the contradictory elements of the Convention: “They want a plan to disenfranchise the colored citizen and violate the Constitution of the United States, without violating the Constitution of the United States.” Mitchell declared this an impossibility: “They want the man to shoot the turkey, without the man shooting the turkey. They want an act done without doing the act.” Furthermore, in that same week’s issue of The Planet, a powerful article titled “Good Negroes in Virginia” contrasted, side-by-side, the desires of the convention. The article argued that countless black Virginians experienced unjust convictions while whites faced little punishment for brutal crimes. Mitchell and the black community of Virginia did not understand why they deserved to be disenfranchised when no crime committed by a black man had ever been worse than that of a white man: “Is it any more unusual for a colored man to commit a crime than it is for a white man to commit a similar offense?” Black Virginians feared that they could be reversing the progress that they had made for the advancement of black voting in the 1800s.

Mitchell noted that the committee moved very slowly, and each week articles discussed unsuccessful meeting after meeting. The Convention could not agree on which policies to implement, but every proposal always somehow seemed to disenfranchise black voters, whether the grandfather clause, poll taxes, property tests, or literacy and educational qualifications. Mitchell and other black men did not expect successful disenfranchisement legislation in the future due to the unconstitutionality and lack of compromise by the delegates.

Mitchell demonstrated black Virginians’ discontent with influential white political figures. In the beginning of March, “The Governor Against us” complained about the unfair propositions by the white elite to harm blacks. Mitchell argued that at a “time of so much racial agitation,” with this heated debate in the new century, the governor desired to further hinder blacks. The governor announced plans to change the education system in order to limit collegiate education for black people. Furthermore, the Committee on Roads discussed a proposed bill for segregated streetcars. These “negro-haters” argued that it was the responsibility of the conductor to assign seats and keep them as segregated as possible. These two racist discussions and propositions by white legislators further fueled the anger of Mitchell and many members of the black community in Richmond.

In response to propositions of this kind, black people in Virginia constantly posed resistance. However, it was not as common to see white supporters standing up for the dangerous and unjust new legislation. In February, Dr. Richard Mcllwaine, a white man and president of Hampden-Sydney College at the time, used his platform to influence the white delegates of the Constitutional Convention in hopes of swaying their proposed legislation. He spoke powerfully on behalf of the black community to prevent disenfranchisement while restoring faith to black people at a time of so much uncertainty. Relating to the plan that “as many as possible of the Negroes should be deprived of the suffrage, while not one white man should lose his vote,” Mcllwaine argued that black people received cruel punishments for the same offenses as white men. Concerning the disenfranchisement propositions, he urged that there be “no more lying and cheating at the polls, no more false counting, no effort to shut out a man because he is black, but that absolute and equal justice be granted to both races.” Mcllwaine served as one example of an influential white supporter that gave hope to blacks, ensuring that they would not lose their voting rights.

Unfortunately for the black community, in late March, discussion in the Virginia Constitutional Convention began to speed up, and many black Virginians expressed their serious concerns that disenfranchisement would soon become a reality. Mitchell knew that he had very little time for a final sway to the white legislators before losing all voting rights again. In an article titled, “The Truth as it is Spoken,” Mitchell posed his final opposition: “It is amazing that the ablest and most learned men of the State will deliberately shut their eyes to the plain and safe course which lies directly before them, and persist in following a dark and torturous way which is beset on every hand with doubt and difficulty and danger.” His final attempt to prevent the convention from following through with its plan directly challenged the white legislators’ character.

Mitchell’s resistance to the white legislators’ behavior proved unsuccessful. In April, the delegates passed the suffrage proposal without any submission to the public for ratification. The disenfranchisement plan included a poll tax, the understanding clause, and a written application for voter registration, which tested literacy. The black community of Virginia was horrified and uncertain about what the future held; they would be stepping back to try and earn back voting rights, rather than progressing to become successful in other areas. On July 10th, these installations became Virginia law, directly threatening the future for all black Virginians.

Rather than passively accepting this new setback and recognizing themselves as less qualified than whites, the black people of Virginia responded with determination. Mitchell powerfully claimed that he, and many other black people, would not give up, despite their exhaustion from posing strong resistance and receiving nothing in return. This caused Mitchell to change his strategy and in some ways to become less combative. An ironic article published in July titled “Hurts White Folks the Most” remarked that the “unconstitutional ‘Constitutional’ Convention” in Virginia had come to a close. After being introduced for the “purpose of injuring the Negro,” it ultimately hurt the white man by implementing a small law that no state officer, most likely a white man, could receive free railroad passes. By contrasting the final effects of the Virginia Constitutional Convention on blacks versus whites, Mitchell showed how discriminatory the white legislators had been.

The black community of Virginia argued that this new law would not stop them from speaking out against the racist whites. It may have been a new obstacle on their path to future success, but they would persevere and ultimately surpass the challenge by focusing on what they could control: strengthening their own businesses, moral behavior through temperance, and Church-centered community. In the following years, interpretations of The Planet show that Mitchell and other black Virginians focused on this transition.

Brooke Royer