The path to white supremacy was clear: Remove Black voters from Virginia politics. Indeed, no one at the convention doubted that its core purpose was black disenfranchisement. A Southwestern Virginia politician made that clear in a letter to delegate Allen Caperton Braxton: “Thousands of people in the State would never have voted for the Convention had they not believed that, by doing so, the negro would be eliminated as an element in our state politics.”
Some delegates went even further. Claggett B. Jones wanted the ballot restricted to “the respectable element of a community.” He refused “[to turn] my people over to a rabble.” Another delegate agreed that giving the vote to Blacks was not the only problem. “It is the depraved and incompetent men of our own race, who have nothing at stake in government.” Colleague George D. Wise asserted that suffrage was a force for good “when exercised by intelligent citizens,” but it was dangerous “in the hands of the ignorant, the depraved and the vicious.”
As for Blacks, what place did the delegates of 1901 see persons of color having in the “community” conceived in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights? There was “but one spot within the Commonwealth of Virginia where he can make himself useful,” delegate Walter Allen Watson said. “That spot is in the corn field and on the tobacco ground as an agricultural laborer.”
Where the question of public education was concerned, spending money to educate Blacks, many delegates maintained, was both wasteful and harmful. “This man in black,” Watson said, “is absolutely incapable of cultivation or useful advancement.” Brunswick County delegate Robert Turnbull declared the evils of educating Blacks. Education, he said, had made them vagabonds: “We have...unfitted them for what God Almighty intended them to be and...they are too proud to work on the farm and unfit for anything else.”
The convention had little reason to worry that the U.S. Supreme Court would stand in their way. That tribunal had rejected such a challenge to Mississippi’s 1890 constitution. Thus a prominent member of the convention in Richmond, Carter Glass, the owner and editor of the Lynchburg News, declared that his colleagues could move ahead with their “primary purpose” — “to eliminate every negro of whom we could be rid without running counter to the prohibition of the Federal Constitution.”
The poll tax was put in place as one impediment. Another was a formidable registration requirement. Property owners and those who had served in either the U.S. or Confederate army or navy (and their sons) were entitled to register to vote. Otherwise, registration officials could require an applicant to read any section of the constitution (chosen by the registrar) and to give a “reasonable explanation of the same.” Taken together, the obstacles to voting were such that one delegate, with unalloyed confidence, predicted that the barriers “will be too great for the negro.”
Unwilling to take the chance that the existing electorate (many of whom would be excluded from the franchise) might not approve the proposed constitution, the convention simply promulgated it. It took effect without a vote of the people. Its framers’ predictions about the franchise proved accurate. After 1902, fewer than 5% of all registered voters were Black, where in 1867 almost half had been Black. Poor whites, as well, were disqualified in large numbers.