The Segregation Ordinance, Part II: Race Riots
|Ashland, VA, taken in 1900, courtesy of the Ashland Museum.|
After the war, Ashland’s main source of income, the Slash Resort, had closed and was
abandoned. The horse racing track in Ashland had been transformed into a soldier camp and was never restored. Fortunately, the college of Randolph-Macon, located in a small town in rural Mecklenburg County, was looking to relocate to an area closer to Richmond and to modern transportation. The empty resort proved a perfect match for the institution and the college moved to Ashland in 1868, three years after Lee surrendered to Grant. The school brought much needed commerce to the community as businesses opened to serve the students and professors. Had it not been for the relocation of Randolph-Macon, the town of Ashland might not have seen the twentieth century as the Civil War had destroyed the economy of the southern states.
While the relocation of the college helped to rebuild the town’s economy, racial tension would begin to grow throughout the South as whites reacted to a free black population. Provisional governments set up by the United States gave blacks the opportunity to hold government offices and make decisions for their communities, but these newly appointed powers intimidated and frustrated many whites who were used to subservient blacks. Feeling threatened, whites often resorted to fear mongering to keep control.
After the surrender of the Confederate Army, the United States viewed the South as a conquered territory and instituted military rule that removed all of the former state and local political leadership. These actions caused resentment among whites which grew into the myth of the Lost Cause: that the Civil War was a “heroic sacrifice and honorific commitment to duty and family.” Vanderbilt University Professor Larry Griffin explained this reaction in his essay, Why Was the South a Problem?:
“The South created its own myth of the Lost Cause to explain the Civil War as heroic sacrifice and honorific. It challenged America’s definition of Reconstruction by redefining it to be nothing more than orchestrated villainy, corruption, degeneracy, and political debasement, and it acted on those understandings by inflaming and unleashing the Klan of the 1870s.”
In the rural American South, tensions between whites and blacks were
well established by the turn of the twentieth century. The resulting segregation
laws and racism can be seen in the stories from small towns: in their letters,
their newspapers, and in their public history.
The Danville Circular
An incident in Danville, Virginia in 1883 revealed the negative repercussions of reconstruction and the political instability that it caused. During the years immediately following the Civil War, the United States placed black and white Republican lawmakers in government seats. The Readjuster Party, which was Republican and biracial, carried a majority in Virginia’s General Assembly in 1879, and the influences of this party spread to local, municipal governments as well. One goal of Reconstruction governments was tobetter represent both black and white citizens and in the city of Danville, Virginia, this was achieved by dividing the city government into wards, so that the votes of blacks would carry as much influence as that of whites. As blacks took on more leadership roles (this included law enforcement and city council members), the whites of Danville felt ostracized.
A group of thirty white business owners wrote and published an open letter,referred to as the “Danville Circular,” to the citizens of Southwest Virginia stating that the whites of Danville were suffering humiliation, indignity, and intimidation by blacks. The letter also (falsely) stated that the blacks on the Danville city council were going to annex a black neighborhood just outside of the city limits which would swing the majority in their direction and ensure that it would be “impossible for any white man to hold office in the town.”
The publication of this overtly racist letter caused the public condemnation of blacks in front of large crowds in the main streets of Danville. On Saturday, November 3rd, 1883, the tensions of one mob continued into the next day with an open riot and hundreds of individuals firing guns in the streets. Four black men were killed and two white men were wounded, but not before the State government sent in militia troops to keep the peace and ensure an orderly election. The publication of the Circular succeeded in inciting whites to exert control and intimidation over blacks. It showed the power of fear, and the Danville Riot allowed the white Democrats to win the elections and return to power.
This riot became the foundation for a tradition of fear, where whites were constantly told to be wary of blacks because of their tendency to violence and riots. The irony is that most riots during this time period sprang from interactions with aggressive whites, and the majority of casualties were blacks because whites had more access to guns.
Rumors of mob violence or riots would be sufficient to spurn whites to request military support, and this pattern of fear and suppression was successful in keeping blacks in subservient roles. Almost twenty years after the Civil War, in 1902, Ashland was a town full of commerce and activity. The college of Randolph-Macon had brought new residents to the town, which now housed half a dozen bars and taverns, as well as shops and stores.
The Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, who owned the train tracks that ran through the town, was busy installing a second track, and their workers, who were mostly African-Americans, lived in temporary a camp north of Ashland near Doswell. These workers would be paid on a Friday night, and they would travel into the nearest town to spend their wages.
On Sunday, August 31st, 1902, The Times newspaper of Richmond reported that there had been tension between whites and blacks in the town of Ashland for several weeks following an altercation between a black man, Walter Latney, and a white man named Welford Trevillian. It is notable that the newspaper mentioned the occupations of the fathers of these two men. Mr. Trevillian’s father was the “Town Sergeant,” and
Mr. Latney’s father was described as the “town scavenger.” It was reported that Mr. Latney made an offensive remark to Mr. Trevillian as they passed in the street and the two got into a physical fight. Bystanders became involved, and Mr. Latney was arrested and taken to jail.
The following night, the same groups of whites and blacks who had been bystanders of, or involved in, the fight between Latney and Trevillian, returned to the downtown Ashland area. A rock was reportedly thrown by someone in the groups of blacks, and struck a white man, Richard F. Bierne, on the head and required several stitches. To calm the situation, the Mayor of Ashland deputized “a half-dozen or more” special police officers, which were presumably young, white men. These special officers arrested one man, a black railroad worker, who they found to be armed. The article does not mention where the black man was found nor why he was arrested for carrying a gun, as it would have been presumed that many men were armed.
The next evening, September 1st, 1902, found many groups of young black and white men in the center of town. The excitement of these groups was heightened from the previous confrontations and this evenings someone fired a gun into the air which sent people fleeing. The next morning, the body of a black man, James Morris, was found in an alley near the center of town. He had been shot in the back.
The mayor of Ashland,who also was the judge on the local courts, ruled that they could not determine who shot Mr. Morris, and installed a curfew on the town to prevent any more violence. He also asked the governor to send state militia troops to Ashland who patrolled the streets for three days.
In both the Danville and Ashland riot, the only injured or deceased were black men, but the behavior of whites were never called into question. It was a common tactic to deploy large shows of force in response to “negro problems,” regardless of the actual threat to any community. Whites were able to point to these incidents as examples of the need to keep blacks economically restrained and physically separated from the white community, and usher in Jim Crow segregation ordinances.
Ashland was fortunate that no riot broke out over the rumor of Booker T. Washington starting a school for Negroes; by 1911, white Virginians were using laws and ordinances to keep black people oppressed.