Black men in Virginia voted for the first time in October 1867, when they participated in the election on whether to hold a convention to rewrite the state's constitution as required by Congress after the Civil War. They also voted for delegates to that convention and were eligible to serve as delegates themselves. Virginia's government was then under supervison of the United States Army, which oversaw the election.
The 105 delegates elected to the convention included 24 Black men, the first Black men elected to public office in Virginia. The convention met from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868, and was chaired by federal judge John C. Underwood. The Black delegates participated in the discussions and debates and voted to approve the new state constitution. They played an important role in changing the policies and practices of state governance. The attendance book documents the days that each member was present and how much pay they received for their service.
The "Underwood Constitution," as it was sometimes known, institutionalized the rights of Black men to vote. John C. Underwood argued that women should also be allowed to vote, but the convention ignored his recommendation. Delegates debated whether to amend the preamble to the constitution by replacing the word “men” with “mankind, irrespective of race or color.” Along with many white delegates, some Black delegates opposed the suggestion because they preferred to keep any references to color or race out of the constitution. A new section was added, however, stating that "all citizens of the State are herby declared to possess equal civil and political rights and public privileges."
The new constitution created a more democratic form of county government. It also included for the first time a provision to allow for amendment of the state constitution. One of its most important reforms was requiring the creation of a statewide system of free public schools, a major priority for those who had been enslaved and denied an education.
The voters in Virginia ratified their new constitution in 1869 by a vote of 210,585 in favor and only 9,136 opposed. After the General Assembly also ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments later in 1869, Congress passed a bill (signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on January 26, 1870), allowing Virginia’s senators and elected representatives to take their seats in Congress. The act ended Congressional Reconstruction in Virginia.
Citation: Virginia Constitutional Convention (1867-1868), Attendance book, 1867-1868.Accession 40656. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. 23219.
Learn more about Thomas Bayne in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography here.
Learn more about John Brown in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography here.
Learn more about David Canada in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography here.
VS.9, VUS.7, USII.4,CE.2, CE.7, GOVT.6
Scan it: Scan the documents. What do you notice about them? What do you think they were used for?
Be a Journalist: Thomas Bayne, John Brown, and David Canada were three of the Black delegates who were elected to and participated in the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention. The documents from the record book indicate their days of attendance at the convention, and serves as account book, noting payment for attendance and reimbursement for travel expenses. You are a journalist preparing to interview one of these men, what are the three most important questions you would ask? Why are they important?
Current Connection: Provide an example of how the documents reflect or led to a concept/position/policy/practice in government today.
Food for Thought: This was the first time Black delegates helped write Virginia's state constitution. What impact might that have had on changes from previous constitutions?