Political trauma spurs big investments in education and health care, much of it targeting African Americans. Other help for minorities: easier access to the polls, public employment and the courts—not to mention steps toward criminal justice reform. A lot of it is financed by shuffling millions of dollars around the Virginia budget.
It is the handiwork of a governor and General Assembly of the same party—and it has enraged the stoutly conservative opposition recently stripped of power.
Nearly 140 years ago, there was a brief, shining moment of progress at a long-hidebound state Capitol. These advances were won by Republicans—that is not a typo, though they weren’t called that at the time—and ultimately led to a white backlash, the emblems of which include those Confederate statues on Monument Avenue now seemingly doomed by a multiracial backlash to enduring inequity.
Following the Civil War and Virginia’s return to the union under Reconstruction, the issues that drove politics included the new voting power of former slaves and the old debts of a state for which fiscal conservatism was an excuse not to pay for public services, lest the public demand more—thus imperiling the stern white elites who long called the shots in these parts.
Dialing back that pre-Civil War debt to free dollars for schools and health programs, pairing such initiatives with tax cuts for working people and tax increases for big business—read: railroads, the equivalent of the electric monopolies as the bullying gorilla of politics and policy—drove Virginia’s post-Civil War debate.
Harnessing a newly biracial electorate restless for change—these were farmers, laborers, merchants and craftsmen—an ilk committed to debt reduction took control of the General Assembly in 1879. The so-called Readjusters, led by William Mahone, a Confederate general-turned-railroad speculator whose interest in the black vote had more to do with his investments than new ideas for governance, were committed to shifting part of the burden for the debt to creditors.
The Readjusters were thwarted, however, by a governor, Frederick Holliday, a one-armed Confederate veteran, who was an absolutist on retiring the state’s $45 million debt, even if it meant choking off such basic services as education. Holliday and his allies were known as Funders and were the forebears to the parsimonious, segregationist Democratic Party that would dominate Virginia for almost a century under Tom Martin and Harry Byrd Sr.
But in 1881, a Readjuster, William Cameron, narrowly was elected governor over a Funder, ushering in a one-party government committed to change. The legislature that convened the following winter, in 1882, wasted no time implementing its reform agenda and packing the Virginia Supreme Court with sympathetic justices.
The Readjusters, who ultimately would align with the slave-freeing Republican Party, not only moved to prune the debt by about a quarter, they paid for more teachers and schools, doubling total enrollment—more than doubling it for African Americans.
To train black teachers, the Readjusters created what became Virginia State University outside Petersburg. What now is Longwood University came under state control, focusing on producing female educators.
A mental hospital for African Americans was opened, also near Petersburg. It became Central State Hospital and is due for full-on renovation, having become in the early 21st century a reminder of government neglect of mental health services, particularly for blacks.
The Readjusters urged opening juries to African Americans; eliminated flogging, a punishment deeply associated with slavery; carved out public jobs—mostly lower level—for blacks; and did away with the poll tax, an expense that many newly enfranchised people of color could not afford, thus freezing them out of elections in Virginia.
African Americans voted here for the first time in 1867, two years before the first blacks sat in the General Assembly and two years after the South’s surrender at Appomattox, an event recast as a noble lost cause when the bronze castings of Confederates began rising over Monument Avenue in 1890.
That barely was four years after the Readjusters would be routed from Richmond by a Democratic Party that repackaged Readjuster policies as its own, including debt recalculation and support for public schools.
Democrats also capitalized on renewed racial fears after a brawl between blacks and whites in Danville ahead of the 1885 gubernatorial election, blaming Readjusters for the unrest. A Democrat—a nephew of Robert E. Lee—would win that election, smothering a spurt of reform that in 2020 potentially is a geyser.
And producing a cynical reminder that politics is often about self-preservation: Cameron would renounce his Readjuster ties, becoming a race-baiting editorialist and a delegate to the 1901-02 constitutional convention that would strip blacks of the vote that his former party had guaranteed in their behalf.