A story of success in Virginia…short-lived and over a century old, but still a relevant history lesson

We all believe that we’re inherently good. Our histories tell us as much. Unfortunately, history is not a record of factual events so much as a preservation of an identity. Problematic events that conflict with that identity often get ignored and go unmentioned—and can eventually even be forgotten. Evidence of wrongdoing disappears along with any chance of preventing the same problem in the future.

Or, as the old saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

A prime example of this is the story of The Readjusters.

Just after the Civil War, Virginia was in a debt crisis. The state owed $34 million from before the war. With no interest being paid during the war combined with fiscal conservativism, the debt ballooned to more than $45 million by 1871. Then a recession hit and of course the Conservative Party’s answers were to cut social programs, like public schools.

Public education was a right given in Virginia’s constitution, so the people were not all down with cutting it. And then along comes this tiny, bearded dude William “Little Billy” Mahone. He was a former confederate general and Conservative Party leader. He was also a railroad tycoon and a real motherfucker, but he believed in public schools.

So, in 1879 Little Billy got together with a bunch of other dudes interested in readjusting Virginia’s debt. They went down in the valleys and up in the mountains, to towns and cities all over the state and found support wherever they went. They found this support in spite of the fact that, believe it or not, they even welcomed Black people. This interracial statewide coalition then formed the political party called The Readjusters.

Guess what happened next? Well, it turns out that when you allow people equal standing and invite as many perspectives as possible problems get solved pretty damn quick.

That same year Black people started winning elections, Readjusters won majorities in both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly and Little Billy was in the senate the next year. 1881 came and Readjusters won even bigger majorities. And they won all statewide offices. And their pick for governor won.

Then they got their shit together. They got rid of the poll tax. They got rid of the whipping post. They created a college to train Black teachers. They reformed education, including more than doubling the budget for public education. And in case that wasn’t enough, they also turned the deficit into a surplus within two years.

So…What happened? Why isn’t Virginia the bastion of progressive ideas it was 140 years ago? Yup, you guessed it. Those two pesky and fundamentally American little words: white supremacy.

The conservatives didn’t like that Black people had equal standing in a political party, so they started organizing. They went around the state scaring racists with terrifying tales of racial equality and that’s really all it took. The racists voted conservatives into a legislative majority in 1883 and two years later they won all the statewide offices, the governorship and the Readjuster Party ended. Two years after that, in 1887 Little Billy lost his Senate seat.

That’s the story of The Readjusters, the shortest-lived political party in Virginia’s history and doesn’t all of it just sound so familiar?

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Image by Clarisse Meyer from Unsplash

1 thought on “A story of success in Virginia…short-lived and over a century old, but still a relevant history lesson”

  1. Thanks for sharing this ! Born, raised and public schooled in “ole Virginny”, never heard it. The most intriguing aspect was that elites of Virginia’s “good old white boy” politics were involved; threatened, then— as to be expected — the ugly head of white supremacy again reared up.

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