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Segregation

In a tragic reversal of fate, between 1867 and 1871, African Americans lost significant representation in the Virginia General Assembly. Historian Charles E. Wynes, in his book Race Relations in Virginia 1870-1902, details the political turnabout of 1871: “From twenty-one Negro members in the House, the number was reduced to fourteen. In the Senate, Negro membership was halved, from six to three… The attrition of every election steadily reduced Negro membership in the General Assembly, till finally, in 1891, the Negro no longer sat in the nation’s oldest, representative, legislative assembly.”1  

        Wilson is strangely silent regarding the years that followed. We know that the 1877 Compromise, which lead to the withdrawal of Northern troops from the Southern States, as well economic downturn of the late 1800s greatly undermined the political power of Radical Republicans. Between 1877 and 1913 Conservative politicians (who referred to themselves as ‘Redeemers’) worked steadily to disenfranchise black voters through extensive ‘election reforms.’

         By the early 20th century the political landscape of the United States had changed substantially. Roosevelt’s efforts to establish a Progressive Party in the United States culminated in the division of Republican voters on November 5th 1912. The division of this once powerful voting block provided for the unexpected victory of the Democratic candidate, and Staunton native, Woodrow Wilson.

        On Aug. 2nd 1913, just six months after Woodrow Wilson assumed office, Jeffrey Wilson wrote bitterly: “The [S]outh lost out in their fight 50 years ago on the battle field for a separate government. Whose cornerstone would be Negro slavery, but have regained more than they lost in the half of the Congress i.e. absolute control of the [E]xecutive, also and us. We are the persecuted. Worse than [the Israelites] in Egypt.” (Aug. 2 con)

       In his first year in office, Woodrow Wilson pursued an ambitious political agenda that all but ignored African Americans living in the United States. On Aug. 29th 1913, Wilson wrote: “This is a test of the democratic party. They say or said that they are our best friends. Well if such is true, Good Lord, save us from our friends. But it serves us right. Our people ought to have stood by the party and not Roosevelt.” (Aug 29 con) Wilson’s misgivings about the new president would—sadly—be substantiated in the months that followed. Woodrow Wilson’s southern sympathies enabled states and municipalities to move forward rapidly on comprehensive segregation legislation, which would come to be known collectively as Jim Crow.

       That there were relatively few segregation ordinances before the nineteen-teens does not imply that segregation was altogether new. The idea of segregation had taken root in the minds of many lower and middleclass whites around the turn of the century. Over that time communities became increasingly divided, both economically and racially. On June 24th, Wilson observed: “Negroes at one time resided on every street this side of So[uth] Portsmouth but now there is practically a very few east of Green [Street], if I except East Glasgow, Columbia and Bart. Yes King, it is Segregation without law.” (Jun 24 con)

      Interestingly enough, the very first segregation ordinances appeared in Baltimore, Maryland.2 In an ironic twist of fate, the state that famously abolished slavery in 1864 became the first to condone the legal segregation of her residents. In the Journal of Southern History, Roger L. Rice writes that from 1910 “[t]he flame kindled in Baltimore began to spread. In the spring of 1911, Richmond, Virginia passed a segregation ordinance [,] which was later declared valid in the state supreme court. From this time until 1913 a number of other cities adopted residential segregation statues.”3 In his book As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door, Virginia resident and historian Stephen Grant Meyer states that “[I]n 1912, Virginia enacted legislation giving communities the right to restrict neighborhoods.”4 And a year later, cities such as Ashland, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Roanoke had passed their own ordinances. On Sept. 24th 1913, Wilson wrote despondently: “The democratic council has passed the segregation ordinance. I wonder if C.W. Walker will segregate the negroes’ laundry? He is in the laundry business, he will never segregate mine.” (Sep. 24 con)5

       As an old man, it was beyond Wilson’s abilities to turn the tide of segregation, so he unwillingly resigned himself to it. Following his reflection on the Republican Convention 1867, Wilson wrote: “It is a common expression that majorities rule. [Today] we have a president [Woodrow Wilson] and congress [63rd] who represents a minority, but it is the law, and we have to submit to it, but it not only so in that case. But every southern state is dominated by a bourbon minority.” (Apr 30 con)

      In his melancholy Wilson did not spare his own people from a share in the shame of segregation. Writing of the Emancipation Proclamation, on Sept. 8th Wilson stated “Fifty years ago [1863] was the Negros opportunity but he let it slip. —There have been numerous other opportunities since, nipped in the bud and both are gone.” (Sep 8 con) To Wilson the promise of equality had been tangible—if fleeting—and his sense of loss was immense.

         Jeffrey T. Wilson would not live to see what C. Vann Woodward termed the ‘Second Reconstruction’ and what we know today as the Civil Rights Movement. In 1929, Wilson was struck, while walking in the street, by an automobile and died.6 The writings he left behind reveal his own personal struggle to assume basic dignities and political rights in the years following the Civil War. His thoughts and feelings speak to the trials and triumphs of those lost between slavery and Civil Rights. Therefore his 1913 Wanamaker Diary serves to illuminate the experiences of African Americans struggling in the historic darkness of Jim Crow.

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  1. Charles E. Wynes. Race Relations in Virginia 1870-1902 (University of Virginia Press, 1961) 10. 
  2. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford Press, 1974) 100.
  3. Roger L. Rice, “Residential Segregation by Law, 1910-1917” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1968) pp. 179-199.
  4. Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods  (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2000) 20.
  5. Wilson,“Wanamaker diary” p. 341. The quip about the laundry mostly likely refers to the custom of hiring out laundry to African American women.
  6. Wilson’s Obituary published in The Portsmouth Star.