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Community viewpoint: Teach our history of the Readjusters

Community viewpoint: Teach our history of the Readjusters

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Will McLaughlin

Will McLaughlin

In 1963, the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called Danville one of the most segregated cities in the South, whose Black citizens “live in constant fear of a police state.”

In the present (almost 60 years after John Lewis’ speech), Danville is now a regional economic hub and one of the few politically competitive localities in Southside. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests were met with conciliatory police presence, which is more than what other nearby cities (Durham, North Carolina, Richmond, etc.) can say. While slow, its growing downtown River District and economic revival is a ray of hope in our area.

Now, imagine in the Danville of 1883: a racially integrated police force and City Council, led by a biracial political party. This actually happened here in a few short years after Reconstruction ended. Amid all today’s controversy around critical race theory, Confederate statues and whitewashing history, we should know our own Southside history and how much we don’t know.

Eighty years before the Civil Rights movement, Danville was one of the most integrated cities in the South, under the proud banner of the Readjuster Party. We should know that the city of Danville was one of the first (however incomplete) realizations of multiracial democracy in the United States and the world.

With a decisive Union victory in the Civil War, the subsequent 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (and the Union Army) attempted equal enforcement of law on citizens, Black and white. However, the letter of the law means little without enforcement. The 1876 presidential election saw a split Electoral College between Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden and Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes. In return for Union withdrawal from the South, the Democratic party would support Hayes for president. This compromise of 1877 spelled the end of Reconstruction and a return to all-white rule of the South.

For decades after the Civil War, Virginia was economically devastated and owed immense debt. In order to pay this debt, the Conservative Party (which later became the Southern “Bourbon” Democratic Party) enacted harsh and regressive taxes that fell disproportionately on Black and poor whites. Almost half of Virginia’s budget went to debt payments. This regime brought back the whipping post to keep order, disenfranchised most citizens with the poll tax and closed many public schools (a legacy of Union Reconstruction in the 1870 Constitution) to retain financial good-standing.

By comparison, those actually responsible for starting the Civil War, the still-wealthy tobacco planters and industrialists, took in immense funding from state subsidies and paid little in “self-assessed” taxes.

On a national level, the United States possessed a hard-metal and anti-inflationary currency. Unable to expand the supply of money, the well-being of many Americans (especially in agriculture) eroded. This period of American history was defined by the rise of third-party efforts (the Populists, the Greenbacks, etc.), previously-unorthodox political ideology (socialism, anarchism, progressivism, Georgism, the Grange movement) and the rise of civic organizations (unions, YMCA, etc). These developments depended on regional and demographic factors, making generalization difficult.

In Virginia, this moment was met by the Readjuster Party. Wanting to “readjust” the state debt financing agreements, the party ran on a platform of funding public infrastructure, increasing schooling access, lowering most taxes and abolishing undue restrictions on voting. Beginning in the cities of Petersburg and Danville, and appealing to the proud Shenandoah Valley and Southwestern Virginia residents, the party quickly became a force to be reckoned with. The Readjusters explicitly appealed to whites and Blacks, Democrats and Republicans over shared interests, though they did not start out this way. Only after initial successes did they widen their coalition to Blacks, and not on equal footing.

Led by former Confederate Gen. William Mahone, this once-unheard-of coalition elected a governor of Virginia, elected two U.S. senators (via the state Senate, the 17th Amendment mandating direct election of U.S. senators came in 1913), and held a majority in the state legislature from 1881-83. On the federal level, the two Readjuster senators usually caucused with the Republican Party, but did not hesitate to break on key issues of agricultural policy.

In this brief time, the Readjusters abolished the poll tax, ended the whipping post, funded thousands of public schools (new and reopened), mandated equal pay for white and Black schoolteachers, built key infrastructure and refinanced the debt (paying less per year and also making West Virginia pay a fair share of it). Corporations and the wealthy paid their fair share in taxes. The Readjusters also allocated more funding to the new public Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) and founded Virginia State University (a key historically Black college in Ettrick).

In Danville, the city instituted an integrated police force and elected a majority-Black City Council. This is not what people might imagine a Danville of 1883, much less 1963, to be.

This history is largely unknown to us. But we should be so proud of it. Our city, our community, became a realization of the American experiment. Liberty and justice for all must be expressed through politics, economic opportunity and in the social sphere. For so much of our history, we have failed in this regard.

But for the Readjusters’ meteoric rise came an equally swift fall. Mahone’s explicit endorsement of and switch to the Republican Party, combined with riots engineered by the Conservative Democrats, garnered massive racial backlash. The Readjusters lost their state legislative majority in 1883, losing almost half their seats in both houses overnight.

The Conservative Democrats reinstituted the poll tax, literacy tests and unequal pay for Black and white teachers. However, the debt readjustment, infrastructure investments and lower taxes remained.

Mahone, for his part, is honored by one statue in Petersburg. His one remembered claim to fame is his military leadership at the Battle of the Crater in fighting to halt the Union advance, to continue the “peculiar institution” of American slavery. In fairness, Mahone was a complicated man, and other leaders and notable Readjusters are largely lost to history.

I believe that many of us can value and learn from the short but impressive history of the Virginia Readjuster Party. For both adults and our children, it might help us navigate these turbulent political times and provide a history that all can draw from. While no one would argue that it was a better time, it does illustrate a better sense of politics — more fluid, open to alliances and benefitting almost all people. The right to vote should not be duly infringed. Our public services should not be cut. In our two-party system today, we would do well to remember some of these lessons. It should be taught in our public schools and memorialized in our museum. For all the talk of critical race theory or whitewashed history, it seems like a lot of our history isn’t known to begin with.

To serve this nation, we must begin to grapple with complicated and deep issues on freedom, race, and liberty, often beyond the lens of simple political party. It begins here.

McLaughlin is a 2016 graduate of Danville Public Schools and a 2020 honor graduate of the University of Virginia.

I believe that many of us can value and learn from the short but impressive history of the Virginia Readjuster Party. For both adults and our children, it might help us navigate these turbulent political times and provide a history that all can draw from. While no one would argue that it was a better time, it does illustrate a better sense of politics — more fluid, open to alliances and benefitting almost all people. 

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