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.