Skip to main content
VT Special Collections Online

Reconstruction

A year after Lee’s surrender, and Lincoln’s assassination, then Democratic president Andrew Johnson vetoed Congress’s extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau and then the Civil Rights Bill. A two-thirds majority in Congress overruled him. Former bondsmen where over joyed. On April 2nd Wilson recalled that:

“Forty-seven years ago [1866] the colored folks of Norfolk and Portsmouth celebrated the passage of the "Civil Rights Bill" by Congress and we all gathered in the city of Norfolk [and we] had a big parade of civic societies, and discharge colored soldiers speaking out on the suburbs. The poor whites "sicked [sic] on" doubtless, by the upper class, interfered with us. [They] tried to break us up. [A] riot ensued and several whites were killed. I was unhurt. Who killed the parties was never known, but several colored men left the city for fear of arrest, and have never returned.”(Apr. 2 con)

Writing of the Norfolk riot, decades later, historian Alrutheus Ambush Taylor, stated that on April 16, 1866—the date in question—African American residents celebrating the passage of the Civil Rights Bill were fired on as their procession passed the house of Mrs. Whitehurst: “There followed a general mêlée in which it was reported that two blacks and two whites were killed and several others injured. A military force was required to disperse the mob.”1

        The racial violence Wilson, and Taylor, describe in Norfolk was in no way an isolated incident. Following the turmoil of 1866, northern voters returned a huge Republican Party majority to Congress. The following spring, emboldened Republicans passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that returned former Confederate States to military rule and call for elections for new state constitutional conventions. Virginia became Military District Number One. In the spring of 1867, Virginians began the task of rebuilding their state government. Once again Wilson found himself at the epicenter of events.

          On April 30th, Wilson wrote: “This month... I was a delegate from our home city [Portsmouth, Virginia]. Forty-six years ago [1867] to the first republican state convention. Which met in Richmond in the first Baptist Church. It was “thru” the influence of late Geo[rge] Teamoh that I went.” (Apr. 30 con)

Portrait of George Teamoh, Encyclopedia Virginia

         As a delegate, Wilson was instrumental in the nomination of a number of African American candidates, including his friend George Teamoh, who went on to the Virginia Constitutional Convention later that year. George Teamoh was born a slave in Portsmouth in 1818, was a carpenter and an accomplished public speaker. He served in the Senate of Virginia from 1869 to 1871. He was denied re-nomination to the Senate of Virginia in 1871, due to party factionalism, and ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia House of Delegates. He was an advocate of African American self-help, was a founder of Portsmouth’s first African American school, and was active in African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church affairs in the city.”2 Which is where the two men most likely met.

        Wilson’s recollections of Reconstruction were not nearly as rosy as his contemporary John R. Lynch.3 On May 22nd Wilson wrote:

“Forty-two years ago [1870] on or about this date there was an election riot between whites and blacks… Moses Scott who shot a white man had to flee in the night how he got out of the city I never have learned but he went to Boston Mass. He never returned. He died in that city, and I learned he lost his reason.” (May 22 con)

Perhaps discouraged by the riot Wilson stated that he cast his firstvote a year later “in Norfolk County [and that] several colored men were on the ticket and they are all gone “the way of the earth.”


  1. Alrutheus Ambush Taylor, The Negro in the reconstruction of Virginia (New York, Russell & Russell, 1926) 23.
  2. Dictionary of Virginia Biography, George Teamoh (Library of Virginia)
  3. John R. Lynch, The Facts of Reconstruction, (The Neale Publishing Company, 1913)