1902 Constitution of Virginia

the primary objective of the 1902 state constitution was to limit the ability of black men to vote
the primary objective of the 1902 state constitution was to limit the ability of black men to vote
Source: Broadside 1901.N68, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia, 1901 Flyer--"No White Man to Lose His Vote"

Virginia's political elite decided to write a new state constitution after the Supreme Court legalized separate-but-equal treatment of blacks, including the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Williams v. Mississippi decision in 1898 made clear that the Supreme Court would allow voter discrimination, provided the tools used to suppress black voting were written in a race-neutral manner.1

The Democratic Party, with a white supremacist agenda, gained control of the General Assembly from the biracial Readjuster Party in 1883. After the Democrats won all statewide offices in 1885, the Readjuster Party dissolved. The racist perspective of the Democratic Party at the time was reflected in a comment by one delegate to he 1901-1902 constitutional convention:2

There is but one spot in Virginia where the negro can make himself useful and not come into conflict with the superior race... That spot is in the corn field and on the tobacco ground as an agricultural laborer.

The General Assembly and governor proceeded to "redeem" control, finding ways to bypass the 15th Amendment. Mississippi started the process of changing a state constitution to require voters to pass literacy tests and pay poll taxes, tools which were used to discriminate against blacks and squeeze them out of the political process. By 1899, though blacks formed the majority of the state's population, 82% of white males and only 9% of black males were registered to vote.

Other states mimicked Mississippi and established mechanisms for segregation in new state constitutions - South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898), North Carolina (1900), Alabama (1901), Virginia (1901), Georgia (1908), and Oklahoma (1910).3

Virginia voters authorized a constitutional convention in 1900. On May 24, 1901, 100 delegates were elected to what has ended up being Virginia's last general constitutional convention. The delegates met from June 12, 1901-June 26, 1902.

The 1902 constitution created stricter voting requirements, substantially reducing the number of potential voters. Carter Glass made clear that the objective was to exclude black voters from the democratic process, using legal authorities according to the Supreme Court decisions:4

By fraud, no; by discrimination, yes.

One delegate said equally bluntly that the:5

...great underlying principle of this Convention movement, the one object and cause which assembled this body, was the elimination of the negro from the politics of the state.

Local and state officials used the new controls created in the 1902 constitution to block many blacks (and poor whites) from registering to vote. The US Supreme Court interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment to prohibit disfranchising voters simply by race, but did allow restricting who could vote by administrative procedures. Poll taxes and the unequal application of literacy tests were effective tools for discrimination. Political leader W. Gordon Robertson said:6

The best thing we can do to get around the Fifteenth Amendment is to appoint men in every county who will use favoritism towards the white man as against the black man.

The political machine of Governor and then Senator Harry Byrd ensured the poll tax of his supporters was paid so they could vote. By the 1940's, Virginia's political process was considered to be so unrepresentative that the state was described as a "museum of democracy."7

The 1902 constitution recognized the distinction between counties and independent cities. The new constitution also gave the governor more authority. That followed a pattern that started in 1830. It also created the State Corporation Commission, replacing the Board of Public Works. The State Corporation Commission was somewhat independent of the General Assembly, which was under the control of railroad lobbyists.

The constitutional convention declared the new constitution to be in effect as of July 10, 1902; it was not ratified by voters. The legitimacy of the new constitution was tested in a lawsuit. In 1903, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals determined in Taylor v. Commonwealth (1903) that the new constitution was legitimate.8

Article XV in the 1902 constitution made is easier to approve amendments. It modified the requirement created in the 1870 constitution that a proposed amendment had to be approved by a second General Assembly, after a general election for both houses, before submission to the voters for ratification. Instead, amendments could be approved at a second meeting of the General Assembly after an election for just the House of Delegates. Since delegates served two-year terms and state senators served four-year terms, the change in the 1902 constitution potentially accelerated approval of an amendment by two years.

Since 1902, no general constitutional convention has produced a document to replace - rather than amend - the 1902 constitution. The substantial amendments incorporated into the 1928 and the 1971 constitutions, other more-limited amendments, and the revisions proclaimed by limited constitutional conventions in 1945 and 1956 are all changes to (but not replacements of) the 1902 constitution.

Constitutions of Virginia

voting registrars (including women after 1920) swore to uphold the 1902 state constitution that was ordained rather than ratified by voters
voting registrars (including women after 1920) swore to uphold the 1902 state constitution that was ordained rather than ratified by voters
Source: Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center, Found in the Archives (February 2020)

Links

References

1. "The Racist Roots of Virginia's Felon Disenfranchisement," The Atlantic, April 27, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/virginia-felon-disenfranchisement/480072/ (last checked June 23, 2019)
2. Brendan Wolfe, "Danville Riot (1883)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, June 29, 2015, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Danville_Riot_1883; "A.E. Dick Howard column: Virginia's 1902 Constitution: The era of disenfranchisement," Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 19, 2020, https://richmond.com/opinion/columnists/a-e-dick-howard-column-virginias-1902-constitution-the-era-of-disenfranchisement/article_1c72dd9e-d21c-527b-b0c3-0b2eeb526460.html (last checked December 21, 2020)
3. "The Mississippi Constitution of 1890," Mississippi History Now, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/103/mississippi-constitution-of-1890; "Mississippi - Subversion of the Right to Vote," Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Civil Rights Movement Archive, 1964, pp.9-10, https://www.crmvet.org/docs/msrv64.pdf; "Nov. 1, 1890: Mississippi Constitution," Zinn Education Project, https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/mississippi-constitution/ (last checked December 21, 2020)
4. "The Virginia Constitution: A Documentary Analysis," William and Mary Law Review, Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1968), p.514 (Table I), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol10/iss2/20/; John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.14-15, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ; "A.E. Dick Howard column: Virginia's 1902 Constitution: The era of disenfranchisement," Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 19, 2020, https://richmond.com/opinion/columnists/a-e-dick-howard-column-virginias-1902-constitution-the-era-of-disenfranchisement/article_1c72dd9e-d21c-527b-b0c3-0b2eeb526460.html (last checked December 21, 2020)
5. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, p.15, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ (last checked June 23, 2019)
6. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.16-17, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ (last checked June 23, 2019)
7. Key, V. O., Southern Politics in State and Nation, Knopf, New York, 1949
8. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.17-18, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ (last checked June 23, 2019)


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