The year of 1894 proved a pivotal one, both for political characters and for the people who lived through the decisions made by those characters. Black Virginians found themselves in a midterm election year in which their fundamental right to vote began to be manipulated by state politicians, including those in the Governor’s mansion. Though they attempted to set aside their strife and pursue friendly relations with white Southerners, at the same time they faced lynchings from disgruntled white vigilantes, with local “law enforcement” turning a blind eye, and, in some cases, even supporting the actions of these mobs. In the face of these challenges they advocated for themselves in the local, state, and federal level of government.

With the 1892 elections having brought the Democrats into power in the United States Congress, as well as the Virginia House of Delegates, Republicans, supported by many black Richmonders, were in the opposition in government. Democrats in Washington brushed aside efforts from notable black politicians to include black members in the cabinet of the Grover Cleveland Administration. Black Democrats were rejected by both Democrats and other African Americans, and so black voters found themselves largely excluded from the conversation in national politics.

Though they were a minority in the politics on Capitol Hill, Republicans nationwide made efforts to increase their representation and fight the demagoguery of Southern Democrats. In Virginia, they made slow advances in the polling stations across the South, winning elections in cities such a Norfolk and Richmond, where they faced exceptional challenges by their Democrat counterparts. Eventually, their victories on the local level would reach the federal level, with the Republicans winning a 75-seat majority in the House of Representatives. The swing from Democrat to Republican asserted the active participation of black voters across the country, though, they were slowly finding setbacks of their own in the voting booth.

The earliest forms of voter disenfranchisement began to take hold in the early 1890s, with the introduction of the secret ballot. The innovation, also known as the Australian Ballot, introduced elsewhere to ensure the security of voting, made the manipulation of elections even easier in Virginia and the rest of the South.  The secret ballot allowed officials to reject or manipulate the votes of illiterate men. Such voters often relied on a prefilled ballot they could simply sign and submit to the ballot box. The Planet argued that the Australian Ballot became “one of the most outrageous measures ever enacted by any state for the disenfranchisement of the colored man” (17 March). The Australian ballot foreshadowed the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1902 that would completely disenfranchise black voters of the Commonwealth.

Despite the setbacks on a political level, the black community of Virginia, especially in Richmond, pushed to secure their place and make their voices heard. In Jackson Ward, black men [EA6] voted in droves, with Republicans winning a sweeping victory for themselves in city and neighborhood elections. When black wheel riders—bicyclists—were excluded from the League of American wheelmen, they brought it upon themselves to create their own league, with confidence in the community that they would surely support them.  Key black figures in Richmond, such as John Mitchell, pushed for the creation of an armory in Jackson Ward as a way to demonstrate the patriotism black people held for their country.  Despite black Virginians’ display of devotion to the Commonwealth and the United States, the mayor of Richmond vetoed the allocation of funds for the armory.  Black Richmonders constantly, and often fruitlessly, fought to deserve their place in society.

Black reformers worked to expose the realities of “lynch-law” and its effects on black communities throughout the South. Ida B Wells, while on tour in the United Kingdom, spoke with European audiences about the violence against blacks in the South, horrifying them with her accounts of lynchings. The South was in the need of European immigrant labor in order to boost the diminished Southern economy and so the exposure of the realities of lynch law threatened their economic livelihood. These revelations prompted the Southern press to portray Wells as an instigator of controversy, who only intended on bringing malice to the South. Though many white newspapers attempted to debunk her claims, African American newspapers such as the Planet painted her as a hero for doing the journalism that, in the South, would have led to her own lynching. Wells’ efforts of exposing the truth of lynching served as a part of an overall movement to expose the inhumanity of lynching.

Even with the revelations of the terror blacks lived under lynch-law, lynchings still raged. The Planet told of various cases where black men found guilty of rape or murder were lynched shortly after their convictions.  The Planet, without claiming the innocence of these men, called for proper, legal punishment. In other cases, black men were lynched simply for disagreeing with a white man.  One black man, who had only written a strongly worded letter to the Superintendent of Schools of his county, was lynched by a mob that descended on his house. Lynchings, portrayed as appropriate vigilante justice by white newspapers, made it dangerous for a black man to look a white man in the eye—and made it prudent to avoid white women altogether. Lynchings served to keep black people subservient and bowed.

Though the monuments made towards Confederate icons such as Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue would not be built for another decade, a statue to Robert E Lee had been built in 1890.  Preachers at the dedications often attacked Northerners for the destruction they had brought to the South, while assuring the South that it would once again reach its former glory. These preachers, such as Rev. Dr. Cave, compared the Civil War to biblical stories.  “Instead of accepting the defeat of the South as a Divine verdict against her,” he proclaimed, “I regard it as but another instance of ‘Truth on the scaffold, and wrong on the throne.’” The creation of these monuments seemed to serve as a revival of the South, to remind the future generations of the “glorious” antebellum South and how it would, one day, reawaken and her children would heed and serve her.

In turn, white and Democrat-leaning newspapers attacked monuments in memory to abolitionists such as John Brown, claiming that they only served to reopen wounds instead of bring healing. The ironic claims made by these newspapers often revealed the revisionist history policy, openly supported and pursued by many white southern politicians.  The Planet, though, argued there should be no shame in remembering men such as John Brown, as men like him, “never let thousands of innocent men into a conflict, deluged a land with the blood of the Guiltless, separated husband from wife, son, Lover from sweetheart…” The idea of remembering men who only brought war, pain, and separation was the real opener of old wounds, while men such as John Brown only worked to make their country the best she could be, without any pain or suffering.

Despite the greater strife growing throughout the country along racial lines, there remained cries for greater unity among all black and white people. The Planet, which constantly called upon its readers to defend themselves, asked for them to attempt to set aside their strife with white people, as “The prosperity of the South…mean the betterment of the condition, to a greater or lesser extent of all the people living within its borders.”  From early on, the Planet realized that overall growth and unity of the South would slowly lead to the overall growth of prosperity. In its eyes, strength could only be achieved through unity, with unity being achieved through faith in the idea of living peacefully with respect for their fellow citizen.

In short, 1894 was a year of “in-between,” with a changing South bringing new changes and challenges for its citizens. Black Southerners, finding it increasingly difficult to find a place for themselves in these changing times, created for themselves spaces where they could grow and prosper as a people. Despite an uncertain, and at times bleak future, the Planet encouraged its readers to advocate for themselves in these changing times.

Carlos Serrano