Lesson 2: A Look at Virginians During Reconstruction, 1865-1877

Historical Background

According to Christopher Clark and Nancy Hewitt, “Both failures and successes were inherent in the task of rebuilding the nation following the Civil War: vigilante violence, often fatal conflict over the right of African American men to vote, courageous African American insistence on self-determination and participation in the political process, and federal intervention in the South to help assure freedpeople’s rights.  The Union victory in 1865 had settled two major debates but left everything else in doubt.  The United States of America was preserved; slavery was dead, and African Americans were now free.  But who would hold and exercise economic and political power in the postwar South?  What kind of labor system would replace slavery?  Who would lead the South politically?  What would freedom mean for the four million former slaves?  Answers to these questions were widely contested and would emerge only after two decades of intense political and social struggle, a struggle that contemporaries hopefully called Reconstruction.

Racial conflicts in the former Confederacy continued to disrupt efforts at reunification, and a protracted financial crisis dashed hopes for a quick economic recovery.  In response, northern political and business leaders focused their efforts on revitalizing the economy through reconciliation between North and South rather than protecting racial advancement in either region.  Thus… the old planter aristocracy – under the protection of a revived Democratic Party – returned to power, controlling a nonslave but still exploitative system of agricultural labor. 

The failure of Reconstruction to transform southern race relations shaped the nation as a whole.  Still, it was freedpeople who paid the highest price.  Outgunned, both figuratively and literally, they were left with few alternatives.  Yet they did not give up.  Those who remained in the South established a dense network of autonomous community-based institutions, including black schools, churches, and businesses, to keep their democratic hopes alive within an oppressive and racist system.”     
(From Clark, Christopher and Nancy A. Hewitt. Who Built America, Volume I, pages 589-590.)

Virginia, 1865-1870

The 1869 Virginia Constitution, unlike previous state charters, mandated public education.  Virginia’s position on public education – let alone its position on educating blacks – had been tenuous at best.  The state had long resisted a system of free schools, despite the efforts of some of its more famous citizens.  Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful campaign for free schools had yielded little more than a literary fund for indigent children.  All of that changed when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867 demanding that southern states ratify new constitutions guaranteeing black suffrage.  Once these constitutions met with congressional approval and after the state approved the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress promised re-admittance into the Union.

Responding to the Reconstruction Act, Virginians registered voters and called an election to decide if the state would call a convention to revise the state’s constitution.  In 1867 226 Fairfax County blacks registered to vote – voting unanimously in favor of a constitutional convention.  In 1869, they returned to the polls and voted for adoption of the Constitution.  

At the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention, education proved to be one of the most hotly debated topics, (the state’s war debt was the other top issue).  Though delegates largely consisted of northern immigrants and freedmen easily approved a public school system, they were strongly divided over the question of integration.  Many northern immigrants viewed public schools as the foundation of a democratic society and a key to reconstruction of the South.  The question broke along racial lines.  Black members introduced resolutions ensuring equal access to education “without distinction of color.”  White delegates never took these suggestions seriously.  Even radicals who supported desegregation voted against such resolutions.  Mindful of widespread sentiment against mixed schools, they did not want to risk ratification.  In the end, while most assumed public schools would be segregated, no language could be agreed upon and the question was not resolved until the legislature revisited the issue in 1870. 

While blacks lost their campaign for mixed schools, they still passed a milestone in gaining access to public education.  However, as a result of poor political and financial support, Virginia’s first public schools for both blacks and whites were grossly inadequate.  Many did not have heat or toilets, schools were small and scattered; also the average term was less than the five months mandated by the Virginia Constitution, and attendance, which was not required was sparse.   Despite these conditions – and those for black children were considerably worse than those for whites – still there were now public schools in which both black and white children learned.

The William Jasper family, 1808-1870  [Talking Points]

•    William Jasper, an African American, was probably born in 1808 not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon.  He was born a slave on the plantation of William Hayward Foote’s Hayfield plantation.  Foote was one of the richest men in Fairfax County—when he died he owned 50 slaves. 

•    Jasper worked on a plantation that grew wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs.  Slaves at Hayfield, including Jasper, are likely to have had skills as farmers, blacksmiths, and carpenters.

•    Jasper and his family were not sold south to booming cotton and sugar plantations, as were many other slaves.

•    According to his will, Foote decided to free his slaves on or soon after his death in 1846.  At this time Jasper, in his thirties, was valued by appraisers to be worth $350.  Foote’s will also freed Jasper’s wife Sara, in her mid-twenties, and their two daughters who were six and four.  They were actually freed in the early 1850’s.

•    It is important to note that the Jaspers were free blacks in Virginia before the Civil War.  But even as free blacks they faced numerous obstacles.  They could not: own a gun, obtain an education, vote, conduct business freely, worship in religious services unless supervised by whites.  Also they might be captured by slave traders and sold back into slavery.
•    The Jaspers wanted to stay in Virginia near friends and family, so in 1853 and 1858 they chose to register as free blacks in Fairfax County to prove that they were free.  This meant they could travel and gain employment.  

•    In 1860 William Jasper purchased 13 acres of land near the Hayfield Plantation.  It is likely that he put together the $200 to pay a white farmer and slave owner for the land from his work as a farmer.

•    The Jaspers probably did not stay on their newly bought land during the Civil War  -- and it is also likely that what they had on this land, including buildings, animals and crops, was lost during the war.