By Edward Spannaus
July 9, 2021–Editor’s note: The following article was previewed on this blog in 2019, in a post entitled “New History Bulletin Introduces the ‘Readjusters,’” and subtitled “History Does Not Come in Black and White.” However, at that time, the article, published in the Bulletin of Loudoun County History, was only available in hard copy. Now, the Bulletin has made its 2019 issue available online, and thus this article is now available to a wider audience. It tells a largely unknown story that is of the utmost relevance in today’s politically-polarized environment, and so we are pleased to be able to make the full article available to our readers.
Hard as it might be to believe today, an alliance between poor and working-class Whites, and recently emancipated Blacks, governed Virginia and several of its major cities from 1879 to 1883. Every former Confederate state had some sort of Black-White coalition grouping, but Virginia’s – known as the “Readjusters” or the Readjuster Party — has been called “the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South.”
It resulted in very real –albeit temporary –political and economic gains for many of Virginia’s Black citizens during the movement’s ascendancy. And it posed, in the minds of its participants, an alternative model for the post-Reconstruction development of the former Confederacy.
The Readjusters – so-called because they wanted to “readjust” the state’s pre-war debt so that sufficient funds were available for public schools and other government services – had a profound impact on Virginia, not only during the time they held power, but also over the long term, particularly with respect to education.
This alliance did not just create institutions for Blacks; it gave control of a number of these institutions to Blacks – which was unique among the Southern states.
The most dramatic case of the benefits of Readjuster power was Petersburg, Virginia’s largest Black-majority city. The Readjuster majority in the state legislature obtained a Black college and mental-health asylum for Petersburg. The Readjuster-controlled city government improved the streets and the water system, brought in street lights and a street car system, appointed a Black public health officer, and subsidized prescription drugs, among other things.
The success of the Readjuster coalition in uniting Whites and Blacks for a progressive economic program triggered a fierce reaction from Virginia’s traditionalist, “Bourbon” ruling class, who took a number of steps to prevent this from ever happening again –including disfranchising not only Black voters but as many as one-half of the state’s White voters as well.
Tags: black-white alliance, Bulletin of Loudoun County History, Edward Spannaus, Petersburg, Readjusters
It’s amazing that this is considered “rediscovered history” – it’s been there all along, but no doubt in history books the North and liberals routinely ignore. The vast chasm of actual knowledge about the South has never been more obvious. A cursory survey of Virginia history books would reveal many sources for this information.
I just heard an interview of Van Gosse, a professor of history and author of “The First Reconstruction:Black Politics in America from the Revolution tothe Civil War. He challenges the canard that white property owners were the original and only voters. Women and blacks voted in several places in the beginning of our nation, but this is not widely known and certainly not taught in typical history courses.
That is true about the voting. New Jersey is one of those states (until the early 180ss) — there were property qualifications, but color or sex were not the issue. You
find conflicting sources, but in one place I read that thee were as many as 5 states where such voting was allowed.
Lincoln mentioned black voters in his criticisms of the conclusions Taney reached in his ruling in the Dred Scott case.