This politicization of history education and the demonization of history teachers will likely have a profound impact on the now delayed review. The 2022 History and Social Science (SOL) Learning Standards will shape what Virginia students learn about their Commonwealth’s past.
Regardless of what the board approves as the final version, it will not include one of the most important chapters in Virginia’s history. Right after Reconstruction, between 1879 and 1883, Virginia was governed by a biracial party known as the Readjusters. During this brief period, African Americans assumed positions of significant political power at all levels of local and state government decades before legal restrictions and Jim Crow violence slammed doors for decades. decades. This story offers an important reminder in our time of deep political division that political coalitions that transcend class, race and political party are possible even during the most tumultuous times.
Reconstruction came late to Virginia. It did not happen as a result of a northern “bagging cleat” invasion or military occupation, as Virginians were taught for much of the 20th century, but as the unlikely result of the leadership of a former Confederate general and Virginia native.
William Mahone was born in 1826 into a family of innkeepers in Southampton County. One of his earliest memories is of the bloodshed and violence that erupted following the failed slave rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831. In 1847 Mahone graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a diploma in civil engineering. In 1860 he was living in Petersburg and serving as chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. Mahone also counted seven enslaved people as his personal property.
At the start of the Civil War, Mahone was commissioned as a captain in the Confederate army and gradually rose in rank, although he did not distinguish himself on the battlefield. That changed in the early morning of July 30, 1864, after the U.S. Army detonated 8,000 pounds of gunpowder under a Confederate salient just outside Petersburg.
During the Battle of the Crater, four Union divisions, including one composed entirely of black soldiers, poured into the breech in an attempt to break the Confederate line and take possession of the city. But Mahone and his division won a decisive victory. Thousands of men lay dead and dying in the sweltering heat, including more than 200 black soldiers, who were massacred by the Confederates. These men were executed as “slaves in rebellion” by Mahone’s men rather than treated as soldiers or prisoners of war.
After the war, Mahone remained involved in Confederate veterans activities while taking steps to expand his railroad interests. He cultivated political allies in Richmond to run what became known as the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad. Following the financial collapse of 1873 and the loss of the railroad, Mahone entered state politics.
The central political question for Virginia leaders at this time was what to do with the massive state debt incurred even before the war. Conservative elements have offered to pay it off in full, but Mahone and others have advocated a “downgrade” or repayment of some of the debt, which would leave public funds for public schools and other projects. In the 1879 state elections, Mahone helped lead his Readjustment Party to victory, winning 56 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 24 of 50 senators. With a readjusting majority in the General Assembly, Mahone was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he caucused with the Republican Party. In the process, Mahone helped forge a powerful biracial coalition that controlled the state for the next four years.
With Mahone in the Senate and the readjusters in control of the General Assembly and the governorship, this coalition easily passed legislation. Virginia’s state debt was readjusted down to $21 million with enough funds to deliver on campaign promises that benefited poor white and especially African American communities. In 1882, the General Assembly passed legislation supporting the Literary Fund with an appropriation of $379,000, plus an additional payment to public schools; schools with black teachers also received support. Not surprisingly, more conservative white people saw this legislation as a threat to established racial and social hierarchies.
Black political leaders such as Dr. Daniel M. Norton, Alfred M. Harris, and the Reverend William Troy demanded a significant amount of patronage within the Readjuster Party. Both Norton and Harris were once enslaved. At the height of Readjustment control, African Americans made up 27% of Virginia employees in the Treasury Department, 11% in the Bureau of Pensions, 54% in the Office of the Secretary, 38% in the Post Office, and 28% in the Department of Health. interior (including two black women). With Mahone’s support, African Americans also found jobs as clerks and copyists in Washington—an achievement unparalleled in other Reconstruction-era states.
The visibility of African Americans in state government constituted a sea change in the distribution of political power and was seen by many as a threat to white polity in Virginia. The readjustments also changed the composition of public schools. The changes they enacted increased the number of black teachers and students, and the creation of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) opened avenues for upward mobility. The number of black teachers rose from 415 in 1879 to 1,588 in 1884, and black school enrollment rose from 36,000 to 91,000 between those years.
Mahone and the readjusters lost power abruptly following a race riot in Danville on November 3, 1883.
Two decades later, Virginians adopted a state constitution that reduced what little remained of any black political influence. Mahone died in 1895, leaving a conflicting legacy. White Virginians praised his service to the Confederacy, but many were unwilling to forgive his attempt to overthrow his deep-seated racial hierarchy. The desire to move on from a brief period in which black Virginians enjoyed full political rights and the need to justify a return to white control ensured that Mahone and the readjusters would be banished from school textbooks and public memory.
Today, students learn nothing about this important chapter in Virginia’s history.
Even the proposed 2022 SOLs, which have been revised to “incorporate diverse perspectives”, do not cover it. As it stands, State Rebuilding SOLs ask students to consider the important work of the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau as well as the significance of the three Constitutional Amendments that ended slavery, guaranteed the birthright citizenship and granted black men the right to vote. As for significant figures of the time, students are expected to be able to explain the “lasting impacts” of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass “on the nation”. Nothing in the state’s SOLs gives students a sense of the significance of Virginia’s experience with biracial democracy.
This episode offers an important reminder that the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of legalized segregation in Jim Crow times were not inevitable in the postwar South. Interracial cooperation was not only possible, it was a reality for a few years in Virginia.
The political posturing and alarmism that have come to dominate the conversation surrounding the teaching of history and social studies in recent years will likely shape the debate over the next set of SOLs for history and social studies in Virginia. Efforts to censor the teaching of American history will deprive students in Virginia and elsewhere of a complex and challenging historical narrative, the opportunity to make sense of the past, and the opportunity to address issues tough on race and inequality.