The history of Virginia, which the State Council does not want, should be experienced by the students



The Virginia Board of Education has delayed its review of state standards for history and social studies — a process it must conduct every seven years. The nine-member board is now dominated by appointments from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has campaigned to root out critical race theory from schools and offer parents an anonymous tip to report anything they find suspicious going on in the classroom.

This politicization of history teaching and the demonization of history teachers is likely to have profound implications for the now-delayed review. The 2022 History and Social Sciences Learning Standards (SOLs) will shape what Virginia students learn about their Commonwealth’s past.

Regardless of what the board approves as the final version, it will miss one of the most important chapters in Virginia history. Immediately after Reconstruction, between 1879 and 1883, Virginia was governed by a multiracial party called the Readjusters. During that brief period, African Americans held positions of significant political power at all levels of local and state government, decades before legal restrictions and Jim Crow violence slammed the doors shut for decades. This story offers an important reminder in our own time of deep political divisions that political coalitions that transcend class, race and political parties are possible even in the most turbulent times.

Reconstruction came late to Virginia. It came not as a result of an invasion of Northern “carpetbaggers” or military occupation, as Virginians were taught to do for much of the 20th century, but as the unlikely result of the leadership of a former Confederate general and native Virginian.

William Mahone was born in 1826 to innkeepers in Southampton County. One of his earliest memories was of the bloodshed and violence that erupted in the wake of Nat Turner’s failed slave rebellion in 1831. In 1847, Mahone graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a degree 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 among his personal property.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Mahone was made a captain in the Confederate Army and gradually rose in rank, although he failed to assert himself on the battlefield. That changed early in the morning of July 30, 1864, after the US Army detonated 8,000 pounds of powder under a Confederate arch outside of Petersburg.

During the Battle for the crater, four Union divisions, including one composed entirely of black soldiers, poured into the breech to break through the Confederate line and take possession of the city. But Mahone and his division secured a decisive victory. Thousands of men lay dead and dying in the sweltering heat, including more than 200 black soldiers massacred by the Confederates. These men were executed by Mahone’s men as “slaves of the rebellion” and not treated as soldiers or prisoners of war.

After the war, Mahone remained involved in Confederate veteran activities while simultaneously taking steps to expand his railroad interests. He cultivated political allies in Richmond to manage what became known as the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad. After the financial collapse of 1873 and the loss of the railroad, Mahone entered state politics.

The central political question for Virginia leaders at the time was what to do with the state’s massive debt that had been incurred before the war. Conservative elements proposed paying it back in full, but Mahone and others advocated “readjusting downwards,” or paying off some of the debt, which would leave state funds for public schools and other projects. In the state election of 1879, Mahone helped direct his Adjuster party to victory, won 56 out of 100 seats in the House of Representatives and 24 out of 50 Senators. With a majority of realigners in the General Assembly, Mahone was elected to the US Senate, where he partisan 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 Readjusters at the helm of the General Assembly and the governorship, this coalition passed legislation with ease. Virginia’s national debt was revised down to $21 million, with enough funds left over to fulfill 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 were also supported. Not surprisingly, more conservative whites saw this legislation as a threat to established racial and social hierarchies.

Black political leaders like Dr. Daniel M. Norton, Alfred M. Harris and Rev. William Troy claimed a significant share of patronage within the Adjuster Party. Norton and Harris were both formerly enslaved. At the peak of the readjuster’s scrutiny, African Americans made up 27 percent of Virginia employees in the Treasury Department, 11 percent in the Pensions Office, 54 percent in the Secretariat, 38 percent in the Post Office, and 28 percent in the Interior Department (including two black women). With Mahone’s support, African Americans also found clerk and copyist jobs in Washington –– a feat unparalleled in other Reconstruction-era states.

The visibility of African Americans in state government represented a radical shift in the distribution of political power and was viewed by many as a threat to white political dominance in Virginia. Readjusters also changed the makeup of public schools. The amendments they enacted increased the number of black teachers and students, and the establishment of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) opened avenues for upward mobility. The number of black teachers increased from 415 in 1879 to 1,588 in 1884, and black enrollment in schools increased from 36,000 to 91,000 between these years.

Mahone and the Readjusters abruptly lost power after a race riot in Danville on November 3, 1883.

Two decades later, Virginians passed a state constitution that restricted black political influence. Mahone died in 1895, leaving a conflicting legacy. White Virginians praised his service to the Confederacy, but many were unwilling to condone his attempt to overthrow their ingrained racial hierarchy. The desire to put behind a brief period when black Virginians enjoyed full political rights and the need to justify a return to white control guaranteed that Mahone and the Readjusters would be banished from school textbooks and public memory.

Today’s students learn nothing about this important chapter of Virginia history.

Even the proposed SOLs for 2022, which have been revised to “include different perspectives,” don’t cover it. Currently, the state’s SOLs on Reconstruction asks students to consider the important work of the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau as well as the importance of the three constitutional amendments that ended slavery, guaranteed the birthright of citizenship, and gave black men the right to vote. As for important figures of the time, students are expected to be able to explain the “enduring impact” of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass “on the nation.” Nothing in the state’s SOLs gives students a sense of the importance of Virginia’s experiment in biracial democracy.

This episode offers an important reminder that the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of legalized segregation were not inevitable during the Jim Crow era in the post-war South. Interracial cooperation was not only possible but a reality for a few short years in Virginia.

The political posturing and scaremongering that has dominated the conversation about history and social studies education for the last few years will likely shape the debate on Virginia’s next series of history and social studies SOLs. Efforts to censor the teaching of American history are depriving students in Virginia and elsewhere of a complex and challenging historical narrative, a chance to make sense of the past, and an opportunity to grapple with difficult questions about race and inequality.


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